Friday, April 15, 2005
Look Ma, No Theories (or, No Taste)
I’ll bet I’m not the only to have an ambivalent reaction to the kind of thread that developed from Daniel’s Disinterest Hats post--not the post itself, but the extended discussion that followed. (Confirmation. No sooner did I write that sentence than I flipped over to the Valve main page and saw that Miriam said almost exactly the same.) And I do mean ambivalent in the full sense of the word. What is it with conversations of the sort? They’re like wrecks on the highway or late night televisions shows featuring teams of crime solving supermodels. Or maybe the Sunday morning talk shows are a better analogy. You can’t take your eyes away, but when it’s over you feel icky and like you’ve just squandered some of the precious time you’ve been allotted in this brief transit. Nothing happens, the debate never advances, no minds get changed, and precious little in the way of new information or perspective comes to the fore. So, why, for gaia’s sake, are they so damnably and weirdly compelling?
Well, for precisely those reasons is my guess. Nothing’s so gratifying as an irresolvable debate of starkly opposed positions. And what’s attractive about them is that, since so little development occurs, they can function as a kind of moral theater. A place, in other words, where you can display, to choose a random example, your inability to suffer the pomposity of academic jargon. Or, vice versa, your impatience with the old fartiness of the cultivated sensibility. And, then, in turn where you can be further gratified by the outrageous postures of your hapless foes. This isn’t reasoned discourse, in other words. It’s professional wrestling.
I think there’s a reason--apart from the current state of the field--that literary criticism is prey to such dramas. Aesthetic judgment is all about developing, refining, displaying sensibility. It may seem that recent generations of academic critics have left that all behind. But that’s a misperception. What they’re quite frequently doing rather is cultivating and displaying the sensibility of one eager to leave such trivial concerns behind. In my view, in other words, the critic who says, “well, at least I’m not a stuffy old don nodding complacently off over the classics” isn’t really changing the subject (or not only, anway) but showing us what kind of worthy person he or she is. Which isn’t really that different from the critic who exclaims about their love of lit. The differences between them are differences of sensibility, but their not really differences in the kind of discourse they’re engaged in. They’re both engaged in the process of making themselves admirable people.
(Acknowledgment due: John’s mock platonic dialogue about Theory says something very similar to this if I remember and understood right. Needless to say, he’s not responsible for the careless rambling here.)
Arguing about literary criticism is a bizarrely compelling kind of theater I think precisely because it’s usually less about any subject than about our most cherished self-perceptions. Like narcissism in general, it’s tedious and addictive at the same time.
p.s., I should add that if you haven’t read John’s mock platonic dialogue, go, do it. Not only is it brilliant, but you will be a better and finer person for having experienced it.
I think one thing we can all agree upon how is much Eagleton’s phrase (I think), “swooning over the lectern in a port-induced stupor” has contributed to this debate. I doubt its inspiration was even the result of procedures described in Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the 15th C (Penn State UP, 1998).
Were people “arguing about literary criticism”? I guess I missed the point entirely—how clueless I can be sometimes. For my part, I was trying to make the point that academic lit-studies profs and departments (exceptions allowed for) seem to be doing a lousy job of preparing and educating students.
Forgive me for being presumptuous, MB, but I’d say that post is a case in point. I hope I’m not misreading you when I take your comment about being clueless to be a tad sardonic. Your point is--isn’t it?--that academics are tediously scholastic and that even to refer to arguments about literary criticism is to display the symptom.
But here’s the way you began your comments to Daniel’s post: “screw scholarship, and screw literary studies.” If that’s not arguing over literary criticism, what is it?
The point of my post is that comments like the one you made saying that criticism is “of no use if it doesn’t help the student understand something of what the actual world (or actual worlds) of reading-and-writing is like” are remarkably standard and neutral in this kind of argument. The analyzers of texts share that first principle with you--which is why they often speak with the kind of dimissiveness your comments also show. They don’t just disagree with you. They think you speak for lesser values and would prefer to keep young minds in chains.
This may be unfairly topgallant of me, but both views seem to me to be wrong and to habitually cast their opponents in conveniently and gratifyingly simple guise.
Sean—I’m flattered by the close reading! But I’m really much simpler than that. Saying “screw literary studies” isn’t a way of arguing over literary studies—even I could do better than that if arguing over literary criticism were what I wanted to do. Instead, it’s clearing the decks (or trying to, anyway) for another discussion altogether. Each of my comments was an attempt to get the discussion to focus on the question of whether academic lit-studies is doing a good job of teaching and preparing the students who go through its programs.
This may have been tedious of me, as you and Miriam graciously note. I may not have done it well. That comments-thread may not have been the place to try to do such a thing. On the other hand, it isn’t a bad question. And it’s the kind of question that many non-academics find much more important than questions about research programs or intellectual trends: Are the profs doing a good job of educating and preparing the students who they’re being paid to educate and prepare?
I wonder sometimes: why do academics so resist discussing the question of whether they’re doing a good job of serving their students? Silly me, I’m forever making the mistake of imagining that academics wuold be eager for feedback and observations. But, judging from the way many of them tend to take any attempt to open a discussion up and turn it back into yet another inside-academia debate, I guess I’m wrong. Any thoughts about this?
Let’s not lump teaching students and scholarly lit-crit together. There are overlaps but among the goals of teaching is to help students develop a passion about a something.That something can be a poem, an idea, an historical period. If scholarly studies of the lit-crit type can spark that development then hi ho Silver !
I’m eager not to appear on the wrong side of the dismissiveness tracks, so I’ll tell what I thought of when I read Blowhard’s comments: “here,” I thought, “here is a man who doesn’t believe that a college education should be purely vocational--no, poring over the uses of a new metal and figuring how Sarbanes-Oxley can make your clients money should also be leavened by the reading of Moneyball and other books he likes. And, by the way, his friend, eminent and grise, tells him tenure’s on the out, so there’s that too.”
Rarely have I read the vocational/instrumental argument combined in such a way with that of the idiosyncratic reformer. So I was thrown, frankly, and had to consult the aformentioned manual for consultations.
Wouldn’t Liar’s Poker be the more appropriate Michael Lewis book if the point is to educate future securities’ brokers? (I admit to being a little glib here, but only because I seriously considered teaching Moneyball in my intro. to literary journalism course this quarter. The shock of seeing myself associated, via the absurdity of teaching undergraduates Moneyball, with the “what’s the use of literary criticism crowd” compelled me to respond. You’ll be happy to know that in the end I decided instead on Orlean’s The Orchid Thief...because kids these days know fuck all about flowers.)
I think M. Blowhard is the person to whom this inquiry should be directed, unless that wasn’t the book he had in mind, in which case I offer my utmost apologies to all concerned parties.
Let’s not lump teaching students and scholarly lit-crit together. There are overlaps but among the goals of teaching is to help students develop a passion about a something. That something can be a poem, an idea, an historical period. If scholarly studies of the lit-crit type can spark that development then hi ho Silver !
If, to the extent that it’s a happy coincidence if scholarly criticism can accomplish the goals of teaching, the goals of teaching and criticism don’t largely overlap, why are they practiced by the same people? It’s not at all clear that one and the same type of person is best at both. What are the overlaps?
(And what makes you so certain that’s what a/the goal of teaching is? I’m pretty sure that the goal of my Dostoevsky class (in this crowd I should probably say: class I took, not taught) was to read and understand his works, not to get everyone all excited about Notes from Underground. NTM, why should one of the goals of teaching be helping students develop a passion about something? Students can do that pretty well by themselves, can’t they?)
I agree Ben. The really interesting stuff is about WHY some things make some of us passionate and others don’t and - even more demanding - whether we can become passionate about those things by understanding them better. Where this gets snarled up is that it implies relative values and maybe that some things are more worth getting passionate about than others.
Dear Michael B,
a long delayed response to your question.
The problem you point to in instructors of literature is not unique to the field. Lawyers seldom get together and gab about the big problems of justice and whether they serve it or not. Doctors all too rarely ask whether the current state of medicine serves patients well. (If they did, the medical profession in the U.S. would be in a profound state of crisis. It’s quite amazing actually the deference that American doctors get, especially compared to the nasty treatment that other professions are routinely subjected to.) And professional writers, who you praise as an alternative to academics, don’t worry about whether their work serves the public or literature well. Like everyone else, they obsess about status, income, etc.
The point is that the underpinning of the professions is an implicit social bargain. The public allows professionals to be concerned with personal advancement and narrowly framed issues with the implicit understanding that in the long run everyone benefits.
of course, you might want to make the case that in the case of academic literary instruction the bargain has broken down, and I’d be willing to concede that there’s something to the idea. But, since the complaints you make against academics are pretty standard and have been around for generations, a question naturally arises: whether any possible reform short of just disbanding or breast beating would accomplish what you want. I think Ben’s right. You can’t teach passion and you shouldn’t try. You can show people what they might admire and why, but passion should be an unintended side effect. Otherwise, good forbid, you might turn into Robin Williams.