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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Look Back in Anger: The Death of Literary Studies

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 04/08/08 at 07:58 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

A little while ago, our own Amardeep Singh drew my attention to this article by William Deresiewicz, writing for The Nation, and also to the outstanding response written by CR and posted to Ads Without Products and Long Sunday.

This is Deresiewicz:

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the “conflicts” still exist, but given the larger context in which they’re taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

CR responds:

The decline of the English major has corresponded with the decline of two complexly, but distinctly, related things. They are: the reign of theory and what we might call the politicized classroom. These two factors are complexly related, in my mind, because I’m mostly sure that the politics of theory, as practiced by English departments, wasn’t much of a politics at all, and certainly wasn’t a politics with any (easy) applicability in the real world. Further, the de-politicization of the classroom is something that I’d mostly attribute not simply to the failure of theory, but mostly to the changing atmosphere after 9/11, when conservative attacks on “liberal bias” were front and center in the news [...] I am beginning to feel that students have felt the change in the atmosphere of the English department and have responded by finding other subjects in which to major.

Amardeep, in his post, links to a terrifically helpful report from 2001-2002 to ground his point that “theory” has not been responsible for the decline of the English major.

I am on my way to responding to a fascinating special issue of the Yale Journal of Criticism (Vol. 18, No. 2), edited by Michael Szalay and fellow Valve contributor Sean McCann, entitled “Essays on the Sixties from Some Who Weren’t There,” and featuring Szalay and McCann’s own essay “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left.” So, in some ways, this post is a prelude. It is also a reflection on what it means to be apprenticing for a profession that Deresiewicz, an Associate Professor at Yale, thinks “is, however slowly, dying.” To put this in perspective, the job Deresiewicz currently holds is, for anybody in my position, more or less the pinnacle of their professional hopes ten years out.

Rather than letting “the decline of the English major” remain an abstraction, let me give some particulars of my own experience. When I was getting my B.A. in English, of my eight closest friends, five were either English or Comparative Literature majors; all had taken part in an intensive humanities program freshman year that included housing all the participants together. By senior year, there was absolutely no distinction between our academic work and the rest of our time. We were working on essays and theses about Henry James, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Samuel Beckett, and so on; we were writing our own manifestos, poems, and really long emails; we were drinking cheap vodka (or sometimes some new thing purchased with fledgling credit cards, like cinnamon schnapps) and watching Barfly, High Fidelity, or a student production of Dangerous Liaisons. I’d throw a party, my friend would sit cross-legged on the floor, soliloquizing about track 13 on Exile on Main Street and then disappearing home to write a story called “Rocket Queen.” A series of intensely heated arguments about Heidegger, conducted mostly at around three in the morning, led me to an independent study on Being and Time and my first real introduction to Continental philosophy and “theory.”

By 2002, one year after graduation, my girlfriend at the time had completed her M.A. in Slavic Literature at Stanford, with plans to write and direct for the stage; my other five friends had been accepted to graduate programs in English (Cornell, U. of Chicago), Comparative Literature (U. Penn), and Slavic Literature (UC Berkeley). I began graduate studies in English at UC Irvine in 2003.

Of those five people, one is still in graduate school doing literary studies; she is currently on the job market. My friend who majored in Slavic Literature, once he realized the kind of work he would be allowed to do (historicizing work on lesser-known Russian authors), switched to graduate work in computer science. The rest dropped out in order to attend law school.

When my roommate at Irvine, a new friend and a remarkable scholar, and yet another college friend switched from literature to law school in the space of a year, I remember telling my parents that the discipline had lost its edge. Nothing was “happening,” as we say, and young intellectuals were looking for other ways to have a social impact, or other careers to pursue while they worked on their own poems and novels.

In the four years since then, things have gotten much worse. This is particularly true in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger has continually sought to cut funding for higher education, but it is true everywhere in the United States. There are practical problems: increased fees and overhead costs, shrinking budgets for grants, less guaranteed teaching, fewer tenure-track jobs. This financial squeeze is one cause of a rash of damaging wars within literary studies, and academia more generally, that illustrate how desperate the situation has become.

For example, there is the spectacle of professors calling for the reform or elimination of tenure, using the same specious arguments that conservatives used during the first Bush Administration about tenured high school teachers; in essence, the idea is to treat teachers like salesmen working on commission. There are also media outlets like The New York Times calling for taxes on university endowments, then supplementing that with reminders that professors aren’t no better than anybody else, and shouldn’t be so uppity. At his blog Acephalous, Scott Kaufman took on the unenviable job of calling out K.C. Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College who created a sensation by fearlessly exposing “political correctness” among fellow professors at Duke.

About a year and a half ago, at the Valve, I wrote:

The ideological differences between Badiou and Michaels, or Zizek and Michaels, are not trivial. (Neither are the differences between Zizek and Badiou.) I am not suggesting that the well-rehearsed disagreements between Lacanians and historicists can be easily overcome. Nonetheless, my belief in the projects of universalism and equality leave me out of patience with the refusal to recognize common ground.

I am reminded of the chapter “The Great Petulance,” from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain: “What was it, then? What was in the air? A love of quarrels. Acute petulance. Nameless impatience. A universal penchant for nasty verbal exchanges and outbursts of rage” (673, trans. Woods). The great petulance follows the death of Mynheer Peeperkorn in Mann; for us, it has followed the death of the brilliant and charismatic figure of Derrida.

I now believe that the kind of reconciliation I hoped for in that post will not arrive, at least not without significant clashes coming first. It’s the nature of the blogosphere to invite articulate conflict, of course, but even so I’ve watched one conversation after another in which I participated, and which I thought were cordial dialogues about academia, quickly become bitter disputes. (I should add that in the time since that post, it has become clear that Slavoj Zizek can’t replace Derrida. His fatuous and repetitive lists of political “ironies,” e.g. that Whole Foods is just another capitalist organ, have begun to alienate even his most devoted followers.)

As things stand, there are basically four schools of thought about literary studies:

(1) Critical thinking and writing skills. Some academics believe that the primary value of literary studies is in teaching marketable writing skills, along with “critical thinking,” which is basically the ability to separate yourself from received ideas and representations, and fits with old Jeffersonian ideas about a democratic citizenry. These people are usually the most eager to sink literary studies into broader writing and rhetoric programs, and they like to try to reach students by using multimedia and the Internet (e.g. applying critical thinking skills to a YouTube video). Politically, they advocate a sort of deliberative centrism that in the United States reads as “Democratic.”

The biggest problem with this is that all humanities scholars are qualified to teach writing and critical thinking; these general skills have no special relationship to literary studies.

(2) Historicism. Considering historicism as a whole school of thought, one that has gathered momentum now independent of Michel Foucault and even Stephen Greenblatt, the project is a Marxist project that seeks to explain the material foundations for ideological products (i.e. literary works). There is some lingering regard here for the literary in and of itself, insofar as these literary critics believe that literature represents and preserves ideology in ways other artifacts do not.

This approach blurs the lines between history and literary studies, but the deeper problem is one of sensibility: this particular version of Marxism condescends to its subjects. Because historicism suppresses the counterfactual element in literature—imaginative leaps in excess of historical givens, and frequently opposed to them—it comes off as both pedestrian and pessimistic.

If this seems excessively harsh, consider how many historicist works center on claims about a) popular scientific errors of the time, b) wishful utopianism or progressivism, c) wishful literary solutions to real and perhaps insoluble problems, or d) secret sympathies between a narrative and the prevailing social hierarchy.

(3) The mandarins. This group represents the strange alliance between scholars who have disappeared into the labyrinth of theoretical debate, and scholars who have made aesthetics, in some “purified” form, their justification and refuge. It encompasses both spiraling Zizekian or Derridean ironies as well as Harold Bloom’s gasps of awe. This group mainly consists of academics who already have tenure, or other people in relatively privileged situations, and gets some support (at least on the blogs) from people outside academia who like to think of literature and philosophy as lofty, removed realms. Stanley Fish’s “Think Again” columns fall very much in this category.

(4) The militants. A group that no longer exists, and so will have to be invented. In Saint Paul, Alain Badiou writes in the prologue that “there is currently a widespread search for a new militant figure [on the order of Paul]—even if it takes the form of denying its possibility—called upon to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of this century, which can be said to have been that of the party militant” (2).

I’m amused by Badiou’s notion of a widespread search: it brings to mind comic book scenarios of searching for a hero or a cure, and perhaps also the image of bloodhounds sniffing out a forest. In truth, no such search is really underway. The very idea is horrifying to professors most invested in teaching critical thinking, who see their job as teaching resistance to militancy and dogmatism. It is equally annoying to many other academics who believe that literature and philosophy are not the proper arenas for militancy, either because culture is ineffectual at producing radical change, or because it is a distant Olympus of intellectual pleasure.

What does it mean to speak of militancy within literary studies? It means passionate commitment to a way of living in the world, one that feels itself to be somewhat at odds with its own time. I love what CR has to say about the rise of self-censorship and phony irony during political discussions with students, but I am also certain that the answer is not just making extreme political statements. The vitality of contemporary popular music is based in part on its association with ways of living life: hedonism, excess, self-expression, community. The glamour that attaches to writing fiction and poetry gains similarly from our notion of that life: among recent critical successes, one might look at Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which is joyously concerned with the communities of bohemians and would-be artists in Mexico. This delight in the absolutism of living through art is equally there in Annie Dillard’s ascetic experiments in sharpened consciousness, and in Jonathan Lethem’s version of nerdy urban hip. When I think back on my engagement with literature and art in college, it was an essential part of a whole life I was living at that time. It is not merely that no major theoretical school has emerged since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, as Deresiewicz writes—it is also that one can trace the decline of that work’s meaningfulness in Butler’s persistent effort afterwards to detach her queer studies from the lived experiences of alternative lifestyles, alternative communities, and drag. It is really any wonder that our private conversations come to linger more on the films of Pedro Almodovar or on camp films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, where drag is not merely the subject, but is also allowed to be present? Yet that arc repeats itself everywhere in the profession.

In short, militancy is another word for idealism, both in the sense of hopefulness, and in the sense of living according to ideas, taken broadly to include all forms of intentional representation. It sounds very adolescent, surely, and yet there is something strange in Deresiewicz’s complaint that “the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.” This isn’t true at all; the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by the condescending notions of adults about what makes something feel relevant to younger persons, as well as by our own preference for “sexy” topics, identity myths, and multimedia. In fact, the alienated attitude our students adopt derives from the distance we ourselves keep from the literature in question. Furthermore, education always defines itself in relation to youth: without its ardor and skepticism, there would be no Socratic dialogues, no Emile, nor any other treasure of pedagogy.

***

What the profession is experiencing now is less an absolute decline than it is a drop-off following an unprecedented boom in the 1960s; historically speaking, the 1960s were an anomalous period of extraordinary interest in literary studies. In my next post, I will examine how then-popular ideas about culture, identity, and experience created this boom, the backlash against those ideas, and why that backlash has finally led to the presently underwhelming state of literary studies and Continental philosophy.


Comments

I might suggest a fifth school of thought about literary studies that would encourage a re-engagement with the perspective of the writer.  I’ve found that interacting with creative writers has been at least as influential in my very humble experience in graduate English studies as the encouter with “theory” has been.  Oddly enough, at least at my Big Ten university, there is an unspoken but almost systematic separation between the MFA students and the doctoral students in literary studies (a separation that seems to be rooted in an unfortunate condescending attitude on the part of doctoral students: “Fine.  I’ll read Raymond Carver, but the idea that I should attend a poetry reading by a fellow graduate student?--who has the time!").

It’s difficult to speculate about the causes here—it may have something to do with the surplus of bad writers in MFA programs who have been “hired” to teach introductory composition.  Still, I think the End that we want to discuss here need not be literary studies in general, but perhaps the more critical approach to literary studies.

That is, would it be possible to focus (with Hillis Miller, James Phelan, Wayne Booth, etc.) on how we read “experientially” rather than on interpreting or performing criticism at every turn?  Rather than asking, “What does this mean?,” perhaps we could ask, “How do I experience this...?” (I almost added, “...emotionally?").

Some of the stylistic turns in contemporary criticism, especially popular in introductory chapters in the past decade, seem to point toward a more lyrical,rather than “theoretical,” approach to doing literary studies.  I suppose the question is, how far can we collectively push “critical” writing away from criticism and toward something like memoir?  I’m thinking of Sacvan Bercovitch’s 1993-ish admission in the beginning of The Rites of Assent where he admits that being Jewish, growing up in New York City, being whatever else—that all of this deeply influenced the way he read a book like Melville’s Pierre, and that there is no good reason to affect a more “objective” critical perspective.

Hmm… as poorly as this is expressed, I’m wondering whether this qualifies as a “militant” post?

:)

By on 04/08/08 at 09:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Judas,

Thanks for the great comment!

I think writerly criticism continues to be a fruitful avenue; not only do writers like Lethem or Marilynne Robinson produce fascinating critical essays, but it seems to me that Derrida’s perculiar lyrical vocabulary of critical self-reflection does not need to be our only model for the critic or philosopher’s experience grappling with words. (Right now, you still see a lot of Derrida: emphasis on puns, Cartesian doubts, recursive style.)

Your comments about memoir and lyricism seem quite promising to me; for example, the greatest moment by far in Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning is at the end, where Greenblatt inserts a coda about talking to a man on an airplane. (I won’t spoil it for anyone, but go seek it out.)

That said, two reservations. First, of course, with memoir there is always the danger of seeing literary criticism turn into a New Yorker piece, or worse, a New Yorker poem. In other words, there is the danger of sentimentality, exaggeration.

My other reservation has to do with the autumnal nature of lyrical memoir. It should perhaps be a mode into which critical writing expands, but it will always seem distant, if still valuable and interesting, to resolute persons. Critique, when it expresses dissatisfaction with the present, is speaking on behalf of the future.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/08/08 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On writerly criticism, let me toss out a cliche.  The talents of authors and critics are different, to the point that you sometimes want to ask a critic “Why is a smart guy like you a parasite on a dumb guy like that?” or “If you’re so much smarter than [Author X], wgy don’t you write a book yourself?”

By on 04/09/08 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nothing I read here or at most of the related blogs, or at the Chronicle of Higher Education, or in MLA committee reports and position paper, about the fortunes of the profession of teaching literature at university every makes any sense to me unless I insert the qualifier ‘in North America.’

By Laura on 04/09/08 at 12:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If this seems excessively harsh, consider how many historicist works center on claims about a) popular scientific errors of the time

I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

That said, I don’t find this to be true at all:

he project is a Marxist project that seeks to explain the material foundations for ideological products (i.e. literary works)

None of the people I know working in the historicist mode are committed to any sort of Marxist project.  (I’ll include myself in this one.) In fact, the only things I’ve read lately constituting a Marxist critique have been formalist projects with deep appreciations for late Derrida.  Make of that what you will.

There is some lingering regard here for the literary in and of itself, insofar as these literary critics believe that literature represents and preserves ideology in ways other artifacts do not.

I don’t think the regard is “lingering” so much as fundamental.  I’ve read the treatises and the sycophantic responses to them, but they provide no idea of what it was like to live in the world they created.  This is especially stark when you compare the theories of leftists/Communists/Marxists to what it was like to live under the regimes the manifestos created, but the same logic holds when talking about less oppressive cultures. 

We might differ inasmuch as I value finding the human experience, however mundane, paramount; but I don’t think that means I value the literary-qua-literary any less than you do.  (More instrumental, maybe.)

Because historicism suppresses the counterfactual element in literature—imaginative leaps in excess of historical givens, and frequently opposed to them—it comes off as both pedestrian and pessimistic.

This is only half true: pedestrian, yes, because literature often documents the pedestrian, and historicists are often interested in the experience of the pedestrian.  But—evidence to the contrary—I don’t buy “pessimistic.” I don’t consider my approach valenced thus, because I can’t say what my results will be until I do the research.  I might could only publish the more optimistic results, but I don’t see the value in that given how much it sucks to live in history sometimes. 

Also, I don’t think historicism devalues counterfactuals.  In fact, the counterfactual nature of literature is what distinguishes historians from historicists.  The best—most recent, but still good—example of this is Brook Thomas’s treatment of the incredibly ambiguous conclusion of Pudd’nhead Wilson.  There’s no flattening of the counterfactual; in fact, quite the opposite.

By SEK on 04/09/08 at 12:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On the endowments thing: first, the New York Times is not “calling for taxes on university endowments”; it merely published an opinion piece to that effect (or not exactly; see below).  Publication of an op-ed doesn’t imply endorsement, and in fact many op-eds are later expressly opposed by the editorial board.

Second, Herbert Allen, the author of the piece, is not proposing taxing endowments (the money already made); he is proposing taxing capital gains (the money continuing to be made), and more importantly his proposal would affect only the wealthiest universities, not all universities.

Third, and most materially, I agree with Allen’s proposal.  A lot of the problem with the humanities, and with higher education in general, has less to do with ideology and pedagogy than with the growing stratification between education’s haves and have-nots.  My own alma mater, a small liberal arts school, has a tiny endowment (partly because it’s relatively young, partly because all its graduates become grad students or artists) and has to constantly raise fees (tuition was almost $40K by the time I graduated) to stay above water.  At my university, all introductory classes in the humanities are taught by graduate students and part-time lecturers, and my wife, whose credentials are the same as mine, teaches classes of up to 32 students at a community college.  Meanwhile, Harvard just cut tuition for its students from families making up to $180,000. 

So what you have is a three-tiered system: an aristocracy of colleges which are free to everyone, but which only a tiny percentage of people can get into; less elite and mainstream colleges struggling, and sometimes failing, to survive (Antioch folded recently); and overcrowded, under-funded public universities serving largely as vocational schools.  Why should we allow the rich colleges to get richer without having to support the larger academic infrastructure?  How could I support the estate tax and not support revenue-sharing among colleges and universities, especially when the latter issue affects me so much more?

This is related to my views on tenure: I agree that the removal of tenure should be off the table, given the right-wing interest in abolishing it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge the problems and complications tenure causes.  (I suppose untenured professors could be like “salesmen on commission”; they could also be like any other salaried employee who is paid a guaranteed sum, with benefits but without lifetime security of employment.) I believe in fighting for higher education, but not by taking a bunker mentality; the declared interests of established universities are not necessarily the best interests of higher education as a whole.

By tomemos on 04/09/08 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

SEK,

In certain ways, my statements about historicism are open to challenge. I can readily think of some projects, yours included, that seem unfit to be called pessimistic because of the surprises they have in store: for example, in your case, how evolutionary theory insinuates itself into the American individualist mythos.

By “a Marxist project” I certainly don’t mean, for example, the demolition of the class structure by the dictatorship of the proletariat. I mean a certain kind of politically concerned materialism that just isn’t thinkable before Marx; to illustrate by example, Romantic terms like “imagination” or “genius,” which earlier generations of literary critics would have found useful in explaining the origins of literary works, are scarcely in evidence in works with a historicist bent. The reason, I think, is that social and material conditions suffice as explanations. (A happy coincidence: after writing this, I returned to Thomas’s article, and found the last sentence quoted here.)

That said, look at where Thomas ends up:

The only way to proceed seems to be to deflate existing codes of reasonableness by inhabiting them in such a way as to expose their rhetorical component, a way of proceeding that admits its complicity with that which it would deflate by calling attention to its own rhetoricity. That complicity seems heightened by Twain’s awareness that the rhetoric he uses is a product of society, not individual genius.

This is a double deflation: a deflation of rhetoric, and then a deflation of one’s own critique, because of its rhetoricity. We have, twice over, the products of society. The narrative invites us to engage in the scrutiny of these social constructions, “even if it offers no guarantee as to what the results of that scrutiny will be.”

While one might take a certain pleasure in the apparent rigor and humility of this process, it is not in dialogue with the simultaneous claim that “racial inequality continues to prevail.” There is a sense, in the article, of pervasive injustice, and yet a lack of confidence in any solution, as though that were a finer thing (in Twain) than Tourgée’s “explicit argument based on right reason.”

Confidence in the problem, but none in the solution—dress this up however you like, it is deeply pessimistic, and I do not believe we can say, like the Englishman Haines, “it seems history is to blame.”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/08 at 01:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos,

While it is certainly reasonable to distinguish between editorial columns and a periodical’s editorial board, the fact remains that the New York Times has brought in topics concerning higher education by making space for what are, in my opinion, deeply unconstructive contributions to the public discourse. While their columnists on the right are balanced by columnists on the left, editorials by Allen and Fish have not been balanced by opposing views.

My attitude towards the criticisms of tenure have to do with the idea that tenure is producing the crisis in the humanities; in fact, the tenure system was alive and well in the sixties, when the humanities were flourishing. If we want to reform the tenure system in order to make the universities even better, that’s fine with me, but eliminating tenure won’t solve any existing problems. It will exacerbate them—for example, it will encourage even more intellectual conformism. You have to create an environment first where the elimination of tenure could even possibly be beneficial.

With regard to a capital gains tax for the richest universities—to quote the Times, “Herbert A. Allen is the president of an investment firm.” That being the case, I’m sure he’s aware that the majority of capital gains profits are not made by universities; they’re made by the very wealthiest persons and corporations, which is why Bush made cutting capital gains taxes a very high priority. Rather than pitting one university against another, treating universities like baseball teams, we ought to be seeing calls for new education taxes on all capital gains.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/08 at 01:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s the fallacy where a person’s affiliations are used to discredit his or her claims?  This site says it’s “circumstantial ad hominem.” In any event, while I don’t happen to believe that Allen is writing as a capitalist saboteur, it’s irrelevant to the merits of his argument. I can simultaneously believe in increasing capital gains taxes and also in taxing wealthier universities on behalf of poorer ones—indeed, the former obligates me to consider the latter.

The insistence on balance is one of the things that has made American journalism so stagnant and timidly mainstream.  Op-eds like Allen’s are trial balloons, and I’m happy to see them balanced by letters, often written by experts and authorities, debating their merits.  Beyond that…Point-Counterpoint is for high school newspapers, frankly.

By tomemos on 04/09/08 at 02:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos,

Look, you have a column appearing the Times where the writer tells us that Harvard can afford, in his estimation, to give “1 billion or so” to other colleges while remaining “unscathed.” His qualifications for making this unbelievable statement are that he attended Williams.

If there was talk of a new capital gains tax for education, and richer universities would also be affected, I might be willing to consider the proposition after reading how those universities responded. But this is the latter without the former, and there’s no reason to assume that Allen isn’t trying to let other wealthy individuals and institutions off the hook for higher education.

Within a single article, attempts to present “both sides” sometimes produce specious paragraphs. However, here the paucity of voices simply paves the way for what could easily be uninformed conversations. I’m really tired of academia arising as a mainstream subject only on those occasions when somebody wants to complain about it, shots in the dark that add up over time.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/08 at 03:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The point of literary studies is to produce new knowledge about literature and to pass that knowledge, and the skills needs to produce that knowledge, to new generations of literary scholars. 

I find it ironic that none of Joseph’s major players above recognize such a simple point.  At the same time, if you actually read through major publications in the field, you’ll see most scholars claiming to do nothing more than providing some new insight into an author, a text, a period, a genre, etc.

Literary studies isn’t dying.  It’s returning to the professional obscurity of the past, when scholars wrote such things as annotated bibliographies of special collections.  And anyone who has ever tried to do real research on literature knows that that’s a good thing.

By on 04/09/08 at 06:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That is, would it be possible to focus (with Hillis Miller, James Phelan, Wayne Booth, etc.) on how we read “experientially” rather than on interpreting or performing criticism at every turn?  Rather than asking, “What does this mean?,” perhaps we could ask, “How do I experience this...?” (I almost added, “...emotionally?").

As far as I know, emotional response is, at best, a minor topic in literary studies. We know it’s there, we know it’s important, but we don’t study it. By contrast, it’s absolutely central in recent research in the psychology and neuropsychology of music. There’s nothing lyrical about these articles; they’re straightforward reports of observational and experimental studies.

But I’m not sure how much we can do with the lyrical essays. As John Emerson seems to be suggesting, that requires a different range of skills. Why should you be interested in my emotional response to a text? How and how well do I have to write about it to make it even interesting, if not compelling, to someone else?

By Bill Benzon on 04/09/08 at 08:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Judas: “I’ve found that interacting with creative writers has been at least as influential in my very humble experience in graduate English studies as the encouter with “theory” has been.”

Well.... there’s a recent thread here at the Valve on poetry in translation that, I thought, started to productively work through some of these issues.  In short, the people who teach “how to write” courses at universities appear to me to predominantly have a self-conception as literary writers, not as teachers, and if as teachers, than as teachers of excellence, not teachers of ordinary activity.  Or, to use the metaphor of that thread, they are more interested in trying to be minor league baseball players than they are in being high school or even grade school coaches who teach people how to play softball.

I find this to be psychologically understandable—after all, the literary writer is heir to the Romantic ideal of genius, the grade school athletic coach is a figure of fun and/or resentment—but not particularly inspiring.  It all comes down to a panicky reinforcement of what status hierarchy is left: c.f. “the surplus of bad writers in MFA programs”.  Criticism as memoir, in the current situation, would seem to me to most probably generally turn to veiled references to the critic’s brilliance.

Luther seems to me to be right in that academic humanists are basically scholars.  However, CR also seems to me to be right in that the humanities in the U.S. have taken on social roles that attracted students to them, and that there’s going to be at least a short-term decline if those roles are dropped.  And with academia as a historical relict that probably couldn’t be re-created under current conditions in the U.S., a short-term decline might become a long one.

I’m not sure what to do; I’m not even a humanist or an academic.  I do agree with the wholesale dismissal of all of the tropes in the media.  Whatever the merits of tinkering with some aspect of academia in the abstract, people in the U.S. currently live in a country in which this tinkering will be done, if allowed, by the most destructive elements in society.

By on 04/09/08 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Whatever the merits of tinkering with some aspect of academia in the abstract, people in the U.S. currently live in a country in which this tinkering will be done, if allowed, by the most destructive elements in society.

This is what I meant earlier when I referred to a “bunker mentality"--the idea that, the worse things get for universities, the more we should link arms and oppose reform, because that might make things worse.  Joseph, you want to see how universities respond?  Let me save you some time: they don’t want to do it.  They also don’t want to increase pay and benefits for TAs, and when the TAs strike the universities will always say that they can’t afford such increases without lowering the quality of education or raising fees.  Similarly, automakers can always be counted on to say that they can’t implement whatever gas mileage increases Congress is thinking about mandating.  I don’t dismiss any of this out of hand--that would be Circumstantial Ad Hominem!--but neither will I wait for their permission to support these things.

I agree with you that new taxes should be implemented to fully fund education--primary and secondary--and hopefully under a Democratic administration this will become more feasible, though I imagine we’ll still fall short.  But Allen is describing a real and growing problem, and I don’t think it’s productive to refuse to discuss solutions until the Great Pentagon Bake Sale is held.

By tomemos on 04/09/08 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, and things were bad for Iraqis under Saddam, so we had to turn over the solution to George Bush.  That’s the exact cognate of what you’re writing, tomemos.  Your frustration with how bad things are doesn’t mean that they can’t, predictably, get worse.  If there was an actual political bloc with the actual political power to force academic changes in a good direction, then fine, but there isn’t.

Needless to say, the “tropes in the media” that I referred to don’t ever seem to include the unionization of adjunct labor or anything like that.

By on 04/09/08 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not proposing that we “turn over the solution to George Bush” (or, in this discussion, David Horowitz).  I’m agreeing with a specific proposal meant to address a specific problem.  The Iraq War was a bad idea because it was a bad idea; no one has given any indication of what is bad about Allen’s proposal, at all.  Is Harvard going to stop being Harvard?

If we’re naming exact cognates, then I am reminded of the people who say that the current banking crisis makes it imperative that we not encumber the finance industry with further regulation.  Such regulation could make an already bad situation worse!

By tomemos on 04/09/08 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos,

My point is not to wait for anybody’s permission; rather, my point is that I would have to see how informed people responded. They might be predisposed to reject Allen’s idea, true. Regardless, they would be able to present facts. Allen’s facts boil down to saying, in essence, “7 billion is a very large number, and if I give Jane 1 billion, I still have 6 billion left.” I don’t know what Harvard does with its money, but I’m not willing to just assume that it can give up 14% of its annual profits unscathed.

The real and growing problem is the result of a reduced tax base—this crisis was not created by wealthy universities. We need to restore that base to its former levels. That isn’t hopelessly optimistic.

The proposal is so gigantic that it just starts to look totally unserious. Is some brand new religious college in Colorado supposed to begin receiving a per annum from Princeton on the day its doors open? Is Barnard supposed to pick up the slack when a public university is gutted by its state government?

As a “proposal,” it is approximately on par with easing poverty by taxing churches, something else for which I could argue but which will never happen. It does the only thing it could do—feed animosity between people from different educational backgrounds, inciting them to blame each other for a crisis with other origins and other, realizable solutions.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/08 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a difference between solutions that empower the people who are most affected by the problem (e.g. laws permitting unionization of academic contingent labor, after which they decide what they want to do) and solutions that empower someone from on high to solve a problem (e.g. laws permitting rearrangement of university funds by money managers and politicians who, Halliburton-style, are predictably going to ensure that the money ends up in their pockets).

And the absence of regulation on the banking industry in the U.S. is due to people removing Depression-era restrictions, for the same kinds of individually-it-sounds-good reasons that you’ve cited, pooh-poohing the same kind of caution that I’m suggesting.

People haven’t really learned the lessons of the Bush years at all.  Sure, if someone suggests another aggressive war of choice, they probably know that’s a bad idea.  But change the context even a little and it’s all, sure, the proposal sounds good, so let’s do it.

By on 04/09/08 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joeseph:

Well, the same argument--that it causes competition between classes--is used to oppose every kind of taxation, and in fact people who want to abolish the estate tax often call that tax “class warfare.” The competition already exists, and taxes are a way of leveling the field.  But I take your point that the issue of rich and poor universities is one that needs to be addressed by the whole society and economy, so the responsibilities of the rich universities should not be our sole focus.  Nor is it a central focus of your post--sorry for the digression.

Rich:

There’s a difference between solutions that empower the people who are most affected by the problem … and solutions that empower someone from on high to solve a problem …

That is exactly an argument for laissez-faire policies in everything.  It could have been written by Grover Norquist.  ("Laws permitting rearrangement of university funds” … do you mean “taxes”?)

By tomemos on 04/09/08 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe,

I don’t want to divert the conversation too much, but I think I ought to make a couple of points.  First:

In certain ways, my statements about historicism are open to challenge.

I CAN BREAK YOU.

Second:

I can readily think of some projects, yours included, that seem unfit to be called pessimistic because of the surprises they have in store: for example, in your case, how evolutionary theory insinuates itself into the American individualist mythos.

I suppose I’m tripping over your definitions of optimism and pessimism here.  This is largely because I’ve fought—possibly online, but certainly in my head—against the notion that readings of literary texts ought always be successful.  People in the sciences face pressure not to publish the results of failed experiments, but that’s because they still (for good reason) adhere to a progressive model of scholarship.  They want their journals to overbrim with new and interesting results, and I understand that.  But failure’s oftentimes far more productive than success in terms of producing new and interesting results, and I think that by discouraging that on a professional level we’re shortchanging anyone who doesn’t have graduate students.

What I mean is that when you run a seminar on the topic of your forthcoming article or book, you receive ten to twelve Frankenstein versions of your argument.  Of course, your grad students are doing what they can with the material they’ve given you, but from your perspective, seeing the difference between what they come up with and what you intend is some of the best—albeit negative—feedback you could hope to get.  So if we’re talking about producing more optimistic readings, I don’t think it prudent to discount the value of pessimistic ones. That’s only if we’re talking about the same thing vis-a-vis optimism and pessimism though. 

All that said, I’m not sure if your description of my project resembles my project.  The briefest summary of my chapters I can muster would be:

<ol><li>Silas Weir Mitchell wants to lie about history in order to train everyone to be George Washington.

<li>Jack London reconciles socialism with deterministic evolutionary theory by embracing a quasi-Lamarckian theory of accelerated evolution.

<li>Edith Wharton doesn’t want to play the fool at some future time, so instead of choosing sides in the great Darwinian-Lamarckian debate she dramatizes the conflict by showing the fate of Lamarckian individualism in a Darwinian environment.

<li>Mark Twain likes fingerprints because they’re a metaphorical representation of his nature/nurture jambalaya.
</ol>

To be frank, I consider the work I do to be laying the groundwork people like you will hash out.  Another way to put this, vis-a-vis the Thomas:

There is a sense, in the article, of pervasive injustice, and yet a lack of confidence in any solution, as though that were a finer thing (in Twain) than Tourgée’s “explicit argument based on right reason.”

Confidence in the problem, but none in the solution—dress this up however you like, it is deeply pessimistic ...

Certainly, but also absolutely necessary, since if we don’t know what the problem is with any sort of confidence, our solutions are likely to be much like I contend Hofstadter’s are: fine in and of themselves, but unrelated to the world they claim to describe.  In short, I think you’re underestimating the importance of seeing the problems in all their constantly redacted complexity.  After all, there’s no way to be legitimately optimistic about the potential of your politics if every argument you make violates Godwin’s Law.

By SEK on 04/09/08 at 09:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SEK,

Ah, it’s good to hash these things out.

I think, by optimistic and pessimistic, you take me to mean something like “whole” versus “unfinished,” or perhaps “decisive” versus “indeterminate.” In other words, you take me to be referring to the capacity of a reading to solve a given work, or to answer all of its own questions.

In that sense, there are readings that appear both finished and meaningful, like Freud’s reading of Sophocles, and there are readings that are wonderfully unfinished and messy, like D.H. Lawrence’s reading of the Book of Revelations. Both are fine; one thing I like about blogs is that it’s easier not to pretend to finality.

I’m talking about something different, which I’ve mentioned once or twice before; the responsibility of the critic for his or her own interpretations. To take a patent example, look at Theodor Adorno, who I like but who also prophesied that no good art could follow the event of the Holocaust. Obviously, he was wrong. He had impeccable support for his claim—the rise of mediocre mass culture, the sheer devastation and inhumanity of WWII—and yet it was still entirely wrong, the child of his own melancholy.

In other words, the place where Thomas’s article on Twain ends up isn’t already “out there” in Twain, waiting to be finally understood. If that were the case, it would be more peculiar to Pudd’nhead Wilson. Instead, it is of a piece with Thomas’s own thinking about rhetoric and politics, and his own debt to postmodernism. Compare Fish’s recent summary of postmodernism for the Times:

Criticizing something because it is socially constructed (and thus making the political turn) is what Judith Butler and Joan Scott are in danger of doing when they explain that deconstruction “is not strictly speaking a position, but rather a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ are established.” But those “exclusionary operations” could be held culpable only if they were out of the ordinary, if waiting around the next corner of analysis was a position that was genuinely inclusive. Deconstruction tells us (we don’t have to believe it) that there is no such position.

Therefore, as Thomas applies this argument, we cannot accept Tourgée’s “right reason” as an alternative to racist discourses, and must settle for Twain’s scrutiny and its uncertain outcome.

In short, I think you’re underestimating the importance of seeing the problems in all their constantly redacted complexity.

Right now we have a presidential candidate in Barack Obama whose entire campaign has been grounded in the idea of “the audacity of hope.” However dissatisfied I may feel with his occasional lack of content, and what I consider to be his troubling overtures to the center-right, I am not unhappy about his optimism, and I do not consider him a fool.

Is Obama unaware of the complexity of the problems facing this country in 2008? Is he resorting to misrepresentation? I do not believe so; furthermore, most academics I know support him more unreservedly than I do.

This is our strange predicament; we support a candidate for President who charges ahead with a message of hope and change, while meanwhile pursuing literature down dead ends, negative dialectics, and irresolvable conflicts. It—and by “it” I don’t mean your project, but rather what I take to be the dominant paradigm—is not an honest approach to complex problems. It is merely an unadmirable habit of thought.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/09/08 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dude, I don’t know where to start.  How about selfishly?  What do you think of my response to the endowments debate at IHE?  And to WD himself?

Where is the evidence for the decline of the English major?  People switching to other professions seems a hard-headed response to a terrible job “market"--or better, the kind of system Bousquet analyzes in How the University Works.  You seem to be making the same slip that WD does--the state of theory/criticism and the state of the major are related, but not identical questions.  In fact, you seem the most pessimistic one in this discussion:  why do you agree with WD’s assessment of the state of the major?

I work at a chronically underfunded public regional university in the midst of our latest budget crisis, but the English major has never been better.  No time to get into the details here--just check out the last couple of weeks’ worth of CitizenSE postings to track my own back-and-forth between optimism and pessimism.

I’m curious to see what you do with the bubble narrative you’re building up to.  My own take on the ‘60s is that it in terms of intellectual history there was a fairly unique convergence and cross-fertilization between American and European movements (formalism and structuralism, in particular, which lead to post-structuralism’s getting such an enthusiastic reception in the U.S.); English became a privileged site b/c of obvious affinites with a “linguistic turn” but also because it embraced interdisciplinary approaches (yeah, disciplinary imperialism, but productive intellectually).  In terms of social history, the G.I. Bill/post-WWII expansion of the university system and concomitant entry of new populations into the professoriate, along with the world-wide wave of student activism/university as a site of struggle making its way even to the U.S., seem to be relevant factors--although how English departments changed and responded, I’m not that up on.

I don’t know anyone who’s done a better job than Bousquet of tracking the institutional and ideological factors since, say, the oil crisis of the early 1970s, in the erosion of the tenure system.  Definitely as significant as Graff, Guillory, Readings--the usual suspects on the state of the profession.

Gotta run.

By The Constructivist on 04/10/08 at 05:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m curious about the status of “schools of thought” here. Are these externally applied epithets (as in, academics are nothing but a bunch of mandarins using mystifications to confues people)? Are they internally applied vocational practices (as in the teaching of critical skills as a goal in the classroom?) Are they conceptual scholarly methodologies (as in your model of historicism, though I would also take issue with how you’re defining it)? And, finally, I don’t get what you mean by “militant,” nor what you mean by “A group that no longer exists, and so will have to be invented.” Especially since it seems like you claim idealistic engagement (I thing I’ve seen out there, honest I have) as a defining characteristic for a group that isn’t to exist.

To put it another way, these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but some are (it’s hard to imagine a mandarin worrying about the professional practice of teaching in the terms of the first category), so I’m wondering what the status of the list is within your larger argument. After all, I’m not sure any “school of thought” necessarily correlates with (or contradicts) a “passionate commitment to a way of living in the world.”

By on 04/10/08 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Constructivist,

Your ideas about a new philanthropic direction for the wealthiest colleges and universities makes sense to me. I like that it is directed by the most knowledgeable people—i.e., the actual faculty and administrators of these universities—and I agree that it would strengthen the intellectual community overall.

That said, I have to confess that I am still more fired up politically about general tax increases and greater overall government funding for higher education. I prefer block grants to earmarked or competitively awarded funds wherever possible. To take one notable example, in my own elementary and secondary schooling, incredible sums of money were wasted on education technology that should have been spent on much less flashy stuff, like library improvements. I had the Internet in fourth grade (1988) but we had to read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest three times in four years. In your piece, you suggest that educational technology might be one legitimate form of investment that wouldn’t lead to concern about paying the competition, and that’s true. At the same time, the best kinds of investment in these poorer schools probably would create competition.

As for your quick post on Deresiewicz, I thought it really funny (of course I read it through RSS), but, you know, short. You basically dismiss him out of hand, where for me he did strike a chord even though many of his grumps annoyed me.

Bousquet has done an incredible job tracking the structural problems afflicting academia; it has really been a privilege to have him cross-posting here. It’s a big part of the story, but the intellectual trends and issues matter as well—in your own account above of what was going on in the sixties, there is likewise a mixture of intellectual events (e.g. interdisciplinarity, cross-pollination) and economic ones (the G.I. bill).

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/10/08 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe,

As I’ve indicated many times here at The Valve, I’m old enough that I was there in the 60s. I know about the rapid expansion of academia in response to the Russian scare, etc. and I know about guys going to college on the G.I. bill because they were around me at Hopkins.

I also know about the gloom and doom that was prophesied in the early 70s when federal money started drying people. People made projections of college population, faculty slots, retirement, etc., trying to figure out when the crunch would get really nasty and when things would ease up. I did graduate work at SUNY Buffalo between 73 and 78. That department was flying high at the time, but there was also a sense that it had crested and was going down hill - e.g. John Barth had just left to return to Hopkins, where’d he’d gone as an undergraduate. I don’t think anyone forsaw permatemping, but people were certainly worried about training graduate students for non-existent academic jobs. I recall conversations about limiting graduate student enrollments for that reason.

So, the institutional issues have been explicitly on the table for over 30 years. I have no idea what’s going to happen. The only real change I’ve seen is the rise of for-profit post-secondary vocational training.

As for the intellectual issues, I’ve got an odd position. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I walked away from deconstruction and post-structuralism back in the early 1970s and threw in my lot with cognitive science, neuroscience, biology, evolution, and primate ethology long before Mark Turner, Patrick Hogan and Joseph Carroll (and others) hung out their shingles. But I’ve little sympathy for cheap-shot laments from the likes of Deresiewicz, in part because I don’t think the cheapsters propose useful alternatives, and because I also think they’re appropriating anti-humanities tropes that have been around for quite awhile.

I rather like a remark The Constructivist made somewhere to the effect that people are cobbling interesting work together from this and that and somehow managing to get along. I think that’s how it’s going to be for the forseeable future. To be sure, I’ve got strong views on approaches I’d like to see have a greater presence in the mix. But I’m not terribly worried about the lack of New Dominating Theoretical Voices. On the whole, I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing.

By Bill Benzon on 04/10/08 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron,

The list I give above touches on both scholarly methodology and vocational practices; the two end up overlapping to a great degree. For example, whether you bring in to the classroom a great deal of primary documents from the period to which the work you’re teaching belongs, including photographs, articles from periodicals of the time, etc., or whether you want to draw parallels with numerous modern cultural and political products/phenomena by incorporating them, has a great deal to do with how you think of both yourself (in your scholarly work) and your students (who are learning to become scholars) using that particular artifact.

In my experience, people deeply involved with the specifics of a particular theoretical school truly don’t worry as much about the professional practice of teaching. If they grew up on de Man, well, they teach de Man. They’re discussing the mistake of turning the aesthetic into ideology, not worrying about the role of the professor in a changing society. Likewise Zizek, with his unshakable confidence in the continuing relevance of explicating Lacan.

You would think that none of this precludes passionate engagement or a certain way of living in the world, but in fact, as I pointed to in my discussion of Butler, there is a very strong belief that it does. For two years, in preparation for my qualifying exams, I worked on the tradition of “self-fashioning” in Western literature and philosophy, going all the way from Plato to Foucault, Ralph Ellison, Camus. I was working with the idea that literary and philosophical texts work as solitary theaters in which one rehearses identity, and lays the foundation for more public ethical and political commitments. That idea now encounters incredible resistance. Look at Butler’s complaints about how her ideas of “performativity” were misused; Derrida’s complaints about applied deconstruction (now being echoed by Fish); the intense skepticism of 19th-Century American utopian thought; the reduction of Matthew Arnold and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to objects of satire; the sheer neglect of existentialism as a valid adumbration of Heidegger; the dismissal of the Beats and 20th-Century American counterculture, as well as of earlier “countercultural” figures like D. H. Lawrence; the identification of reformers like Dickens with reactionary, oppressive forces (The Novel and the Police); the rejection of “identity” and “origin” myths as foundations for multiculturalism, and the backlash against Toni Morrison.  The list could be much longer than this, but it gives some idea. The kernel of idealism is spit out, the rest swallowed: we want Stein without her “genius,” Hegel without the teleology, Ellison without the vision of American plurality, Marx without the revolution, and so on.

That is what I mean by militancy—all of these writers were writing towards something. Presumably, Friedrich Nietzsche believed that there could be a “new man” and a “new noontime,” and Herbert Marcuse believed that there could be a society that no longer functioned through externally imposed repression. This is precisely what is absent from contemporary academic discourse; in fact, the bulk of contemporary scholarship orients itself against such things.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/10/08 at 07:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, none of the militants you reference in your previous comment were scholars of literature.  Might that not shed some light on the confusion here about the direction of literary studies? 

Personally, I’m glad the militants have lost ground in the discipline.  The other day, I was digging through the yellowed books on my high school’s English department stacks.  I came across a study of Shakespeare’s sonnets from the 50s, one that brought knowledge of Latin, Italian and French literary traditions to bear on this greatest of artistic achievements.  The prose wasn’t great, but it was readable.  But the intensity of the intelligence, the rigor of the analysis, was breathtaking.  (Interestingly, the book discussed formal, historical, and literary-historical elements simultaneously.)

That’s all that literary studies is, and all it should ever be.

By on 04/10/08 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

I know what you mean, and when I come across a new work like that (for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s recent biography of Shakespeare), it is not only exhilarating, it is somehow comforting. It seems to get at the marrow of our work. One thinks of Hugh Kenner or Richard Ellmann, as far as critics of modernism are concerned.

Nonetheless, these are readers of literature I’m discussing. Nietzsche began as a philologist, and all of his works retain a scholarly component, with the possible exception of one or two works that qualify as literature. Marcuse is pretty heavily concerned with the philosophical tradition rather than the literary, but a kindred spirit like Norman O. Brown made his way (in Life Against Death) through literary-historical readings of Martin Luther and Rainer Maria Rilke among others.

The tragedy of the present moment is that the accumulation of knowledge has been affected by an increasingly unstable conception of what qualifies as knowledge (re: your earlier comment, which I answered earlier and the Internet ate). A literary critic may feel perfectly secure in the careful application of Jacques Lacan to the formal elements of a given narrative, and yet a whole school of critics will dispute the idea that post-Freudian psychoanalysis can produce any knowledge whatsoever about a literary text.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/10/08 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, the philanthropy thing doesn’t preclude the tax thing.  But as the tax thing is dependent on the government, I wanted to float the philanthropy balloon in hopes that the BDEC might be a wee more responsive to the overall health of the U.S. higher ed system than, say, John McCain.

Bill, there’s been a lot done on affect in the last decade--you might see some literary studies meets cognitive psych stuff there.

Luther, the old-school literary studies stuff isn’t dead--one of the things that excites me about working on emerging canons is that so much infrastructural work remains to be done!

My model of the cobbling it together approach is Spivak.  Her work is of enduring value b/c of the way she brings so many theoretical movements into tension with each other.  I gave a talk on this in a departmental brown bag series a little while ago; I might have time by May to blog on it.

Finally, I was dismissive of WD b/c I don’t buy into his narrative of decline in the first place, much less his reasons for this fictional beast’s existence.  Tim Burke and his commenters do a great job articulating what I left unsaid.  I guess what I’d like to hear more about is everyone’s thoughts on the relation between the structural/social and intellectual accounts of the “crisis” in English Studies.  From my perspective, I see emerging canons all over the place, interesting bridging/framing work between them, growing student enrollments, fantastic hiring opportunities even for underfunded public regional universities like my own, and motivated, curious students.  What’s not to love?

By The Constructivist on 04/11/08 at 05:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,
Of course you’re right that scholarly methodology impacts how one teaches, but I don’t think an engagement with “theory” precludes effective pedagogical practice. Not that you said that, exactly, but if you had, I would disagree by pointing at the difference between “theory” as the other pole in a theory/practice dichotomy, and “Theory” as an academic practice in its own right, both a bugbear of the right and an over-idealized figure of engagement for too much of the left. I think this difference gets elided in much of the discussion over “Theory”: an attention to “theory” is indispensable for critically reflecting on our practice as both scholars and teachers (and that’s exactly what we’re doing here), but you’re right that there seems to be something about “Theory” (as practices by high priests like Butler, Zizek, Derrida, etc) that precludes paying much attention to the ways we are actually politically engaged, for good or bad, whether we like it or not.

That said, it seems like the real issue here is not how the writings of Derrida force us to be apolitical, for example, but how a class of apolitical intellectuals have created an apolitical sense of how to practice “theory” that reinforces their desires to be apolitical. Sometimes the dancer and the dance are clearly distinguishable, and I think this is one of those cases: if you want to understand why Judith Butler dislikes how performativity has been instrumentalized, why is it the theoriness of performativity that makes her do that? As the very example of people instrumentalizing it without her blessing indicates, she doesn’t have a monopoly on her concept. I would look elsewhere for an explanation; I would start, for example, by questioning whether well-established people with salaries and a comfortable position of prestige simply have an interest in not rocking the boat. As you yourself say “you would think that none of this precludes passionate engagement or a certain way of living in the world,” and I think that’s exactly right. It doesn’t. If “there is a very strong belief that it does [preclude engagement]” then why isn’t the answer simply that those people have that belief because they would like it to be the case? This, actually, was what I took to be the point of Fish’s article, exactly the reverse of how you characterized it to be. Instead of a complaint that deconstruction should never be applied, I quite take his point that it can be applied in all sorts of ways, and not just leftist ways. Deconstruction isn’t a politics in the same way that doubt isn’t a politics.

I saw Richard Ashcroft give a talk once on the political efficacy of utopian thinking, and he made an interesting case for how “theory’s” skepticism for grand narratives produces an impotent form of politics, that without belief in “something” (for him, it was utopianism), it’s impossible to have effective social change. I think there is something to that, if only because most people out there outside of the old teaching machine *do* tend to believe in something, and it’s hard to get taken seriously by such people if you openly tell them you don’t (and these are people we need more than we are needed by them). After all, we all *do* believe in something, and we all do have a vision of what society *should* look like. What Derrida and co do, I think, is show us the ways these utopian visions are neither natural nor universal, that there is something inevitable about the ways our visions of what should be would, if carried out, find ways to be flawed in quite unexpected ways. That’s not to say that utopianism--or a belief in “something”--isn’t powerful, necessary even, but simply that idealism has to be tempered with a sense of the limitations of our own discourse, less of an argument against engagement, per se, than an argument against scholarly hubris.

You said that “Marcuse believed that there could be a society that no longer functioned through externally imposed repression” and I believe that too, but as a product of the bad old world, I would never pretend that I know what such a repression free society would look like. You have to build it first, and we are unlikely to do so if we think we can imagine a plan for doing so that we just have to put into action. In other words, the mistake of “Theory” is to imagine that I can transcend the limitations of who I am simply by thinking about them. But “theory” is indispensable: not only do we learn by doing, it is the practice of working for social change that (I’m convinced, at least) teach us new theories as we seek to understand how our practices work, and don’t.

By on 04/12/08 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,
Thanks for the reply, that helps.

Of course you’re right that scholarly methodology impacts how one teaches, but I don’t think an engagement with “theory” precludes effective pedagogical practice. Not that you said that, exactly, but if you had, I would disagree by pointing at the difference between “theory” as the other pole in a theory/practice dichotomy, and “Theory” as an academic practice in its own right, both a bugbear of the right and an over-idealized figure of engagement for too much of the left. I think this difference gets elided in much of the discussion over “Theory”: an attention to “theory” is indispensable for critically reflecting on our practice as both scholars and teachers (and that’s exactly what we’re doing here), but you’re right that there seems to be something about “Theory” (as practices by high priests like Butler, Zizek, Derrida, etc) that precludes paying much attention to the ways we are actually politically engaged, for good or bad, whether we like it or not.

That said, it seems like the real issue here is not how the writings of Derrida force us to be apolitical, for example, but how a class of apolitical intellectuals have created an apolitical sense of how to practice “theory” that reinforces their desires to be apolitical. Sometimes the dancer and the dance are clearly distinguishable, and I think this is one of those cases: if you want to understand why Judith Butler dislikes how performativity has been instrumentalized, why is it the theoriness of performativity that makes her do that? As the very example of people instrumentalizing it without her blessing indicates, she doesn’t have a monopoly on her concept. I would look elsewhere for an explanation; I would start, for example, by questioning whether well-established people with salaries and a comfortable position of prestige simply have an interest in not rocking the boat. As you yourself say “you would think that none of this precludes passionate engagement or a certain way of living in the world,” and I think that’s exactly right. It doesn’t. If “there is a very strong belief that it does [preclude engagement]” then why isn’t the answer simply that those people have that belief because they would like it to be the case? This, actually, was what I took to be the point of Fish’s article, exactly the reverse of how you characterized it to be. Instead of a complaint that deconstruction should never be applied, I quite take his point that it can be applied in all sorts of ways, and not just leftist ways. Deconstruction isn’t a politics in the same way that doubt isn’t a politics.

I saw Richard Ashcroft give a talk once on the political efficacy of utopian thinking, and he made an interesting case for how “theory’s” skepticism for grand narratives produces an impotent form of politics, that without belief in “something” (for him, it was utopianism), it’s impossible to have effective social change. I think there is something to that, if only because most people out there outside of the old teaching machine *do* tend to believe in something, and it’s hard to get taken seriously by such people if you openly tell them you don’t (and these are people we need more than we are needed by them). After all, we all *do* believe in something, and we all do have a vision of what society *should* look like. What Derrida and co do, I think, is show us the ways these utopian visions are neither natural nor universal, that there is something inevitable about the ways our visions of what should be would, if carried out, find ways to be flawed in quite unexpected ways. That’s not to say that utopianism--or a belief in “something”--isn’t powerful, necessary even, but simply that idealism has to be tempered with a sense of the limitations of our own discourse, less of an argument against engagement, per se, than an argument against scholarly hubris.

You said that “Marcuse believed that there could be a society that no longer functioned through externally imposed repression” and I believe that too, but as a product of the bad old world, I would never pretend that I know what such a repression free society would look like. You have to build it first, and we are unlikely to do so if we think we can imagine a plan for doing so that we just have to put into action. In other words, the mistake of “Theory” is to imagine that I can transcend the limitations of who I am simply by thinking about them. But “theory” is indispensable: not only do we learn by doing, it is the practice of working for social change that (I’m convinced, at least) teach us new theories as we seek to understand how our practices work, and don’t.

By on 04/12/08 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I would then want to distinguish between “readers of literature” (such as Nietzsche, Marcuse, Brown) and scholars of literature.  The former group is not interested in deepening our knowledge of literature; instead, they use literature as evidence for larger claims about human behavior. 

Constructivist, I agree that real literary scholarship isn’t dead.  That’s why these death of literary studies conversations are stupid.  What’s dying off is the unsustainable growth and momentum supplied by the Theory Years. 

I’d also worry, though, that literary studies will expend strictly by expanding the canon.  One reason I left the profession was that I wanted to work on twentieth century anglophone literature (American, Canadian, African, Caribbean, Australian, etc.), and I never felt like I had the intellectual goods to do so in an intellectually responsible manner.  I knew no foreign languages well enough to read in them; I had no grounding in Greek and Latin classics; I worked on fiction without having studied the central works of 18th century fiction upon which all rests; etc.  Scholars of emerging literatures had better know all the residual and dominant literatures.  I felt as if I needed another course of graduate studies to justify my graduate studies.

By on 04/12/08 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joeseph, I’ve been wondering about this remark of yours:

The tragedy of the present moment is that the accumulation of knowledge has been affected by an increasingly unstable conception of what qualifies as knowledge (re: your earlier comment, which I answered earlier and the Internet ate). A literary critic may feel perfectly secure in the careful application of Jacques Lacan to the formal elements of a given narrative, and yet a whole school of critics will dispute the idea that post-Freudian psychoanalysis can produce any knowledge whatsoever about a literary text.

It’s not as though this is a new situation. And it’s not clear to me that there’s an “increasing” going on. In the business of ferreting out the meaning of literary texts, it’s pretty much always been “roll your own.” As long as you can make a coherent argument of some sort, you’re good to go. Even those who claim that texts have determinate meaning seem unable to agree on just what that meaning is, in any given case. So, we happily tell ourselves that the measure of a text’s greatness is its ability to inspire and sustain multiple readings.

That’s not a formula for accumulating knowledge.

By Bill Benzon on 04/14/08 at 09:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill’s right insofar as there have always been fundamental epistemological debates in literary studies.  Let’s not pretend that the New Critic vs. Psychoanalytic Critic throwdown was somehow more civilized than more recent conflicts. 

But I think Joseph’s right that, with the explosion of methodologies and theoretical schools with incommensurable philosophical foundations, it’s grown easier for scholars to discredit or ignore, wholesale, entire intellectual movements.  (I know that, save for Kaja Silverman’s work, I refused to read any secondary literature that referenced Lacan.)

However, I think one reason people feel as if literary studies are dying off is that these conflicts are dying down.  Read through key journals today and you’ll find a basic consensus in the discipline around close reading, archival research, and historical context.  New and Old Historicisms have merged, New Criticism has been absorbed, and material text/history of the book approaches have been incorporated.

By on 04/14/08 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,
Do you think it’s easier in *general* or is it just that certain methodologies have become discredited (such as psychoanalysis)? My feeling (like yours, I think) is that a lack of grinding conflict has actually meant that synthesizing the work of different schools seems more easily done now than it was back when the “theory” vs “real scholarship” grudge match was still on. Peopel just use Derrida, Lacan, etc when they feel like and when it works, and people basically understand what they mean (having imbibed sufficiently from those fountains to understand what’s going on), but don’t grouse much about it.

By on 04/14/08 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Aaron,

I would look elsewhere for an explanation; I would start, for example, by questioning whether well-established people with salaries and a comfortable position of prestige simply have an interest in not rocking the boat. As you yourself say “you would think that none of this precludes passionate engagement or a certain way of living in the world,” and I think that’s exactly right. It doesn’t. If “there is a very strong belief that it does [preclude engagement]” then why isn’t the answer simply that those people have that belief because they would like it to be the case? This, actually, was what I took to be the point of Fish’s article, exactly the reverse of how you characterized it to be. Instead of a complaint that deconstruction should never be applied, I quite take his point that it can be applied in all sorts of ways, and not just leftist ways. Deconstruction isn’t a politics in the same way that doubt isn’t a politics.

The difficulty for me as I’m reading this paragraph is that it seems to pull in opposite directions. At first you have a set of theoretical texts that potentially could be the foundation for radical practices and positions, but for a group of enfranchised intellectuals who would prefer not to rock the boat.

Then you have the argument that deconstruction, perhaps defined as a recent constellation of radically skeptical methodologies, is not a politics, just as doubt (or hope, or other human attitudes) is not a politics. In other words, even if the intellectuals acquainted with theory weren’t complacent, and were driven to critique the society in which they live, they couldn’t simply embrace deconstruction. They would have to apply it and perhaps alter it. This seems quite close to Fish’s point in his column, though as I read Fish, your willingness to allow deconstruction to evolve into “applied” utopian forms is much greater than his.

What Derrida and co do, I think, is show us the ways these utopian visions are neither natural nor universal, that there is something inevitable about the ways our visions of what should be would, if carried out, find ways to be flawed in quite unexpected ways. That’s not to say that utopianism--or a belief in “something”--isn’t powerful, necessary even, but simply that idealism has to be tempered with a sense of the limitations of our own discourse, less of an argument against engagement, per se, than an argument against scholarly hubris.

You said that “Marcuse believed that there could be a society that no longer functioned through externally imposed repression” and I believe that too, but as a product of the bad old world, I would never pretend that I know what such a repression free society would look like. You have to build it first, and we are unlikely to do so if we think we can imagine a plan for doing so that we just have to put into action. In other words, the mistake of “Theory” is to imagine that I can transcend the limitations of who I am simply by thinking about them. But “theory” is indispensable: not only do we learn by doing, it is the practice of working for social change that (I’m convinced, at least) teach us new theories as we seek to understand how our practices work, and don’t.

Some of this will, I think, serve as a wonderful segue into the material I intend to cover in my next post, so apologies if I don’t respond to all of it here.

Here you offer us genuine wariness and humility: looking ahead, moving forward, but with an eye out for unexpected consequences, historical ironies, and the general capacity of human beings to occasionally disappoint. That is certainly an element of the best of Freud, Derrida, and others. The spirit of what you’ve written is marvelous; I would only respond with the idea that such reservations ought to constitute a state of readiness, rather than a simple blurring of vision. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse does try to imagine a future in which life would be more fulfilling, and I would be ashamed to respond to his vision simply by demurring, by only saying “I’m sure things wouldn’t be as good as all that.” Disagreement is one thing, pure skepticism another—not that that’s your tune, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the kind of reticence other people derive from the way they understand their entanglement in the “bad old world.” For me, reading along with Marcuse (or other writers I admire, such as D. H. Lawrence) is an experience of thinking back on unexampled moments in my own life and in history. Successful critical theory does not wipe the slate clean; rather, it builds upon what ordinary life already discloses, but also denies.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/15/08 at 02:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

Joseph, I would then want to distinguish between “readers of literature” (such as Nietzsche, Marcuse, Brown) and scholars of literature.  The former group is not interested in deepening our knowledge of literature; instead, they use literature as evidence for larger claims about human behavior.

In practice, though, they do deepen our knowledge of literature, particularly since their readings are often profound, and we want to use them as resources. For example, I’m currently working with a bunch of undergraduates on Antigone, and the lecturer speaking about the play has been consistently in dialogue with Hegel’s readings of it. Now, you can’t have those readings without Hegel’s own view of human nature and the dialectic, and yet they are very interesting and have been quite influential. They are certainly superior to most of the ordinary journal traffic about the play.

Prior to the rise of New Criticism, most of the literary criticism of any note was deeply engaged with theories of human nature and behavior; consider, for example, the critical work of a George Eliot, or a Samuel Johnson, or a Matthew Arnold. Really, cutting away the criticism of appreciation, you have a very brief period in which the critical work mostly resembled what you’re valorizing here, say from the rise of New Criticism until the rise of the Frankfurt School, with some of that work attracting followers right up to the present day. Under such circumstances, as neutral as such work may seem, I think it is perfectly reasonable to suspect it of being not only an exceptional approach to imaginative work, but equally as ideological as critical theory (e.g. Marcuse, Butler) or moral criticism (Arnold, Johnson).

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/15/08 at 02:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In response to some of the comments about the ways in which different theoretical schools have been synthesized and “cobbled together” now that the Theory Wars have quieted down, I am reminded of William James:

Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course--give us lots of facts. Principles are good--give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way, but as indubitably is it many, if you look at it in another. It is both one and many--let us adopt a sort of pluralistic monism. Everything of course is necessarily determined, and yet of course our wills are free: a sort of free-will determinism is the true philosophy. The evil of the parts is undeniable; but the whole can’t be evil: so practical pessimism may be combined with metaphysical optimism. And so forth--your ordinary philosophic layman never being a radical, never straightening out his system, but living vaguely in one plausible compartment of it or another to suit the temptations of successive hours.

Looking back on five years of graduate school, I’m obliged to accuse my own work of this kind of “living vaguely in one plausible compartment” or another, and it is eventually an insult to one’s conscience. As much as certain disagreements between critics or between philosophers may shed light on some undreamt way forward, some new synthesis, many acts of cobbling rely on marriages of convenience between the “concreteness” of literature and the supposed rigor of theory, but end up falling down into meaningless eclecticism and imaginary consensus. Surely there is a symbolic order, as Lacan says, but surely there are also chaotic slippages of signification, as Derrida argues. Naturally we cannot colonize otherness, as Levinas and Said warn us not to do, but still we must join together in solidarity, in accordance with Gramsci and Marx. Consciousness is certainly rhizomatic, just as Deleuze informs us, but it is also pure absence, which we know from Blanchot.

I don’t mean that real synthesis isn’t taking place, or couldn’t be, but I suspect real synthesis will look like a new school in its own right, rather than taking the form of some phrase or other, probably heavily italicized, that serves to temporarily corral a bunch of restive and conflicting ideas.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/15/08 at 03:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is going back into old territory—but synthesis is rather implausible.  Sciences can have synthesis because they have to represent the universe, and their complicated theories and terms of art are only required where the universe appears to be complex.  But in the humanities, there’s no reason why you can’t give any description or theory that people find plausible.  They don’t really need to cohere at all, and in fact there is every disciplinary encouragement to make them less understandable by each other—mastery of e.g. a complex Lacanian verbiage serves as a marker of prestige, a sign that the speaker isn’t just peddling typical ideas that could be understood by anyone.

By on 04/15/08 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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