Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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

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

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Noted with Comment

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 05/01/05 at 11:11 PM

Such has been the politicization of the MLA that a counter-organization has been formed, called the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, whose raison d’être is to get English studies back on track. I am myself a dues-paying ($35 annually) member of that organization. I do not go to its meetings, but I am sent the organization’s newsletter and magazine, and they are a useful reminder of how dull English studies have traditionally been. But it is good to recall that dull is not ridiculous, dull is not always irrelevant, dull is not intellectual manure cast into the void.

Epstein doesn’t want to let any existing fact (Said is “entirely political,” for instance) about contemporary literary scholarship get in the way of his piquant (that’s the Dog Soldiers influence, causing me to use that word in two posts in a row) attitudinizing, but you may find it amusing nonetheless. I would like for someone to please explain to me what could possibly be meant by Epstein’s gnomic remark, “now that politics has trumped literature in English departments the situation is even worse,” however.


There are other existing facts he omits:  the existence of Malamud’s A New Life and, IIUC, the uninterred condition of Stanley Fish (or has he indeed “ended his days”?).

By on 05/02/05 at 04:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, he implies that the line about Showalter being “Paglia with balls” is endorsed by Princeton.  But princetoninfo.com describes itself as “Your Guide to Central New Jersey Business and Entertainment”—and even they find the line (from a piece in Mirabella) “dubious”.

So Epstein’s not just smug, but dishonest too.  (Probably he didn’t fabricate this himself, but he’s certainly responsible for propagating it.)

By Vance Maverick on 05/02/05 at 08:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Dull is not ridiculous”? Maybe not if it provides your paycheck. And “intellectual manure cast into the void” seems a better description of The Weekly Standard than of Critical Inquiry.

I can only hope that another thing Epstein’s dishonest about is our hosting organization’s raison d’être. If one wants to travel to a new destination, there are more efficient options than lifting the old commuter train by crane and dropping it onto abandoned and decayed rails.

By Ray Davis on 05/02/05 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I understand why Epstein’s attitudinizing annoys you. He is self-satisfied and evidentially complacent. Plus functional equivalents of this piece have been chunked out so many times, by so many people, that those who produce another repetition - adding nothing to the formula - have no standing to condescend to others about dullness. Not to mention the piece contains one ungrammatical sentence and one clunker of a clause: “any way out of the sweet racket into which they once so ardently longed to get.” (This is phraseology up with which readers should not put.)

Plus the piece is sexist in a sort of cow-trying-to-annoy-the-gadflies way that isn’t very winning. [Now where did I steal that metaphor from?]

That said, I do think this is sort of funny. “The pendulum has swung, but with a thrust so violent as to have gone through the cabinet in which the clock is stored.”

Anyway, to get to the point: do you really find “politics has trumped literature in English departments” to be not just sloppy sociology but semantically opaque? I am very sorry to always be harping on Eagleton’s sins. But no one is going to deny that I have read the man’s damn books, I think. So I can state with some authority: Eagleton more or less forthrightly describes his own method and approach in these terms. I think if you asked him point blank: ‘does politics trump literature in your work as a professor of English literature?’ He would say: ‘Yes!’ This would be a point of pride. He is not the norm in this regard but hardly a garbage data point either. It isn’t an accident that his book became a standard text. So Epstein is just gesturing exaggeratedly towards the fact that if you throw a rock at an English department, you stand a fair chance of hitting an Eagleton.

I understand Epstein writes in such a way as to provoke denial that the sky is blue - if that were his thesis. I understand his lack of charity hardly calls forth charity in interpreting his claims. I grant that no more short pieces like this should be written because they’ve been done to death. I hypothesize that you are, for all these reasons and a few others I might mention, feigning incomprehension of “now that politics has trumped literature in English departments the situation is even worse” out of extreme irritation. Have I guessed your riddle? (I’ve seen you be somewhat ironic on other occasions, which was sort of a clue-in.)

To conclude with one last note about Epstein: that he generalizes not just about literary studies, not just about the humanities, but about the “humanities and social science sides” is at once awkward and egregious. There is nothing about the short review format that necessitates this degree of slop concerning one’s subject.

By John Holbo on 05/02/05 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As a founding member, along with Jebediah Purdy and whoever it was that directed Rushmore, of the “New Sincerity,” I can state with total conviction that the absence of politics is political.

By Jonathan on 05/02/05 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, not to be ingenuous, but the phrase “politics has trumped literature” presumes an understanding of “literature” that includes no politics.  As Eagleton (or anyone else) would be happy to tell us, that’s never been plausible.

By Vance Maverick on 05/02/05 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Vance, I don’t think it really is necessary to understand the phrase as presupposing that literature can be politics-free. If I say that ‘concern with getting Bush’s judicial nominees through trumps all other goals for Bush’s religious backers’ [never mind whether that’s true] it certainly isn’t the case that I’m making some backhanded claim about how you could (or could ideally) have no concern whatsoever about judicial nominees. x trumps y just says that x is the overriding goal/object of focus. You might say: but literature can be political, so a political angle on it can be legitimate. You can have politics and literature. They aren’t mutually exclusive. But then the critics alleging the trumping will say: well, of course. But we weren’t denying it. (Maybe sometimes they are denying it. But that’s no reason to seize on this weakest possible way of defending against the ‘trumping’ accusation.)

I don’t want to start from this point myself. ‘Politics trumps literature’ is analytic sand on which I don’t care to build. But those who say ‘politics trumps literature in literature departments’ are not naive about politics. If they’ve got problems, it isn’t that, for the most part.

By John Holbo on 05/02/05 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your analogue isn’t fair, unless we rewrite Epstein to “Politics trumps all other aspects of literature”.  But this is quibbling; I can take the phrasing as hyperbole, and grant he has a point.

In the larger picture, the article is indeed a parodically lazy example of the conservative literary screed.  I like how artlessly he links the study of literature with a taste for the finer things.

By Vance Maverick on 05/03/05 at 02:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Vance, we’re slicing fine when we get down to the question of whether we ought to extend interpretive courtesy in this or that case. Who cares? And yes, my analogy wasn’t very well chosen. But I do think it’s a seriously important point not to be on a hair-trigger with the naivete change.

You have now graciously and sensibly granted my point, but let me underscore it. Imagine your colleague insists on reading every work of literature in a truly crudely Freudian way. (If you have a soft spot for Sigmund, harden your heart by making the approach truly, stupidly doctrinaire.) You make fun of the colleague: “X’s theory of literature is that sex trumps literature.” It’s sort of funny to put it that way. Really what you mean is that he has this theory he thinks is so fancy, but it’s a joke. So he isn’t LOOKING at literature. He’s admiring his own shoddy tool. Certainly you don’t mean by your little quip that sex and literature are twain, that when you read “Lolita” you should pretend Humbert’s attitude is completely Platonic. (No doubt if your colleague heard you making fun of him, he would take you at your word and accuse you of having a grossly crude view of what Freud is about, and a pitifully prudish view of what literature is about.) When folks like Epstein complain about ‘politics trumps literature’, I believe this is almost always code for ‘you think your approach is so fancy, but it’s impossibly crude.’ So it’s best to proceed straight to the question of whether the approach really is crude.

This, at any rate, is my suspicion.

By John Holbo on 05/03/05 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t accuse you of ingenuousness, John—I was preemptively accusing myself.  At any rate, we’re on the same wavelength now.

(It’s amusing to note, looking back at the Epstein article, that he explains his one concrete aesthetic disagreement with Showalter, on the merits of the academic novels of McCarthy and Jarrell, in political terms.)

By Vance Maverick on 05/03/05 at 04:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m just annoyed that he didn’t have anything to say about Jane Smiley’s Moo, which was freaking hilarious. Or did Showalter herself never mention that novel? If not, a pity; I’d be interested in her opinion (and Epstein’s).

By Russell Arben Fox on 05/03/05 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He’s admiring his own shoddy tool.

Yes, that truly is the Freudian approach.

By on 05/03/05 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Might want to go look at Berube’s site, everyone… He does a nasty little number on the Epstein piece today…


(I wish I knew how to put links into my comments the neat way… Anyone care to explain?)

By cultrev on 05/03/05 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I especially liked this line: “I used to wonder why so many people in the racket were so obviously disappointed, depressed, and generally demoralized.”

Um, Joe, compared to whom?  My guess is there’s no more joie de vivre in the halls of the Standard, or anywhere else that white collar professionals prevail, than in academia, where unless I misremember job satisfaction until recently actually ran quite high.  It’s just the nature of the long training period of all the professions that their most prominent faces will be middle aged--and saddled by responsibility--by the time they achieve any authority.  It’s a bummer, but consider the alternatives.  You might be writing for The Weekly Standard.

By on 05/03/05 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here you go, cult.  Email me and I’ll tell you how it’s done if no one else has yet.

By on 05/03/05 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<a href="www.the valve.org">link</a> = link

By on 05/03/05 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks so very much!

By cultrev on 05/03/05 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: