Saturday, October 22, 2005
Jonathan Mayhew, at his weblog Bemsha Swing:
In conversation with my Latin Americanist colleagues an issue came up. They worry that literature itself is a conservative thing. That is, they view the object of study itself as somehow suspect, infused with conservative baggage that it is their task to be suspicious of. . .
. . .There are plenty of political issues surrounding literature and poetry that are interesting to discuss, and I have all sorts of political opinions that are not far removed from those of my colleagues, but I cannot view political concerns as an acid test of the value of literature or poetry. Even a “conservative” body of work will end up having a certain value that is not confined by its ideology. If someone proved to me the Euripides was “conservative” in the context of his time, that he was on the wrong side politically, I would still stick with Euripides. I would say that that is very interesting, but that that is not the way Euripides is to be judged in the first place. By the same token, I would not admire him more if it were proven that he was “progressive” for his time. In short, I lose no sleep worrying whether teaching literature is a conservative thing to do. Creating poetic texts is something people do, have always done. It’s like asking whether breathing is conservative.
The discussion seems a bit confused—there is equivocation between literature as an inherently conservative entity, the teaching of literature (by itself or without enough context) as a conservative activity, and the presence of conservative political values within particular literary works. I assume that the first was meant, given the start of the post.
I’ve seen this idea, humorously enough, in cyberpunk SF—that when people are no longer really human, the world’s current literature is going to seem incomprehensible or irrelevant to them, and that no subsequent literature will be able to form because people will keep changing. Somehow I doubt that that’s what the Latin Americanists mentioned intend. Presumably they are considering “literature” to have a sort of implicit classism associated with it. If you don’t consider storytelling to be literature, then it becomes something that does not exist in all people’s experience.
I would generally think of something that is not part of the ground state of human existence as being “liberal” rather than “conservative”, using one of the basic senses of “conservative”, but I think that it is most likely characterized as conservative in this case because literature is associated with the upper classes, which are assumed to define conservative values in a Latin American context.
There’s an excellent Mission of Burma song called “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” Well, here’s where I reach for my revolver. The terms “conservative” and “progressive” do not match onto any given political discourse. Anti-capitalism began as a “conservative” issue and is now somehow “progressive.”
Let’s remember exactly what these terms mean—and *how* they mean*. First off, they only have meaning within the confines of a progressive or stadial philosophy of history. What we mean is that “conservatives” don’t want change while “progressives” believe all change is good. At one time, such terms might have held political currency, but today they are ridiculous: the left would like nothing more than to “conserve” the New Deal and Great Society policies, while the right would like nothing more than to “progress” toward total free market capitalism, imperial militarism to support business, and other “neo-liberal” policies.
This is why, as Ross Posnock points out, a “conservative” like Henry James might share a similar critique of capitalist culture with a “progressive” like Adorno.
Calling literature or the study of literature “conservative” is to say nothing *political* about it. It is simply to characterize their relationships to the past. Given the heterogeneity of the past, being conservative or progressive cannot be reduced to left or right, statist or anti-statist.
Why does The Valve become apoplectic about Lacan while blogging about far sloppier writers?
Luther, I’m puzzled by your comment. First of all, the context of the remarks was given—they were made by Latin Americanists. That means that it isn’t a matter of (at the defining extremes) the New Deal vs. total free market capitalism. It’s a matter of socialism vs. a more forthrightly crony capitalist upper class that relies heavily on traditionally conservative values, in societies that today still have an approximately 10% illiteracy rate. Jonathan Mayhew writes that “Creating poetic texts is something people do, have always done”, but that isn’t literally true for all people and for most values of the word “texts”.
As for “Why does The Valve become apoplectic about Lacan while blogging about far sloppier writers?”, who do you mean? This isn’t, as far as I can tell, about the written theory or criticism of any particular writer.
I fear the sloppy writer is me in this case. Far sloppier than Lacan, needless to say! I’ll try to clarify my position, at the risk of causing yet more confusion.
The word “texts” is perhaps not what I meant. “People” have always produced poetry, verbal art. That is, it is a cultural universal that cannot be identified with any particular political narrative. However, in particular fields of literary study, certain narratives do predominate.
In Peninsular studies the predominant narrative is one that identifies “literature” with some narrative of “progress,” from Larra onward at least. Latin Americanists have a different narrative, since “literature” was identified for a long period with the agenda of the ruling elites. “Given the heterogeneity of the past,” it makes no sense to see literature as essentially progressive or conservative, although it is understandable how certain narratives come to predominate within particular academic enclaves. My post was about why I don’t share that narrative with my Latin Americanist colleagues, since I am a Peninsularist and a poet.
I can’t even identify with the “progressive” narrative of literature any more. I don’t see political progress (or not) as the ultimate horizon by which I judge literature. Literature can be on either side or neither, in endlessly complex ways. Some like to worry the question endlessly. Although I find this worrying interesting and the source of interesting research questions, I don’t myself lose sleep over these questions. I am at heart an aesthete.
Why does The Valve become apoplectic about Lacan while blogging about far sloppier writers Because Lacan is ‘Theory’, or attacks on Lacan are part of the case against Theory. Whichever. Again, the eclecticsm, sloppiness, bricolage approach etc that feature on the charge sheet against Theory, are of course not peculiar to Theory at all, and pass without comment in much non-Theory criticism. This is why much anti-theory polemic is disingenuous.
In my haste to get pissed off, I didn’t notice that Jonathan was writing about *conversations* with colleagues. It was the Latin Americanists’ sloppy talk of “conservative” and “progressive” that set me off, insofar as these aren’t political categories. They are historiographic categories.
I do take issue with Jonathan setting up the debate on the basis of those vague terms. Sure, a reading of literature or the profession of literary studies that seeks only to label texts and readings as “progressive” or “conservative” is reductive. That’s its problem, not the politicizing itself. I agree that a text’s politics don’t matter to me as an evaluative category. They concern me as a scholar interested in the symbolic mediation of social problems. For example, I’ve been teaching Le Guin’s *The Left Hand of Darkness*, and I couldn’t care less if the novel is ultimately “feminist” or not. What I do care about is how the imaginative universe of the novel creates symbolic structures that mediate social and political anxieties of Le Guin’s moment. Such symbols and formal traits are totally overdetermined; for example, the novel is at once concerned with the Cold War, the UN, Freudian theories of sex and violence, and feminist critiques of gender roles. The novel’s surreal constructions resonate at each of these levels, and so resonate in complicated and contradictory ways.
It’s that complexity that I use as an evaluative criteria (I guess I’m an old school modernist in that sense). So I agree with Jonathan that political labels aren’t important to me; but I do think a text’s politics (understood broadly) are essential to understanding—and hence evaluating—a work at another level.
Loose talk about “conservative” and “progressive” has indeed become a way of “saying something” political. “Conservative” has become a catch-all term describing everything that is in collusion with the status quo, everything lending itself to the “hegemonic.” It may be sloppy talk, but in today’s politicized academy it’s what passes for political activity. Right on down to “literary” scholars professing “suspicion” of their ostensible subject.
Let me offer a concrete example. For many years I’ve co-taught a course at my university on Arthurian Literature; medievalist colleagues teach medieval Arthuriana, I teach the resurgence in Arthurian lit in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, Arnold, Tennyson, Swinburne, Morris, Pre-Raphaelites more generally etc, through to T H White, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Python’s Holy Grail. The students who opt for this course are often--not exclusively, but often--dreamy-eyed, cat-loving fantasy idealists who’d like nothing more than fold themselves into an escapist universe of bright colours, handsome knights, silk-clad ladies and all that bag-and-baggage. Much of the literature provides them with fuel for these fantasies; and, in case I’m sounding too snidely dismissive, there’s clearly nothing wrong with loving fantasy (and in fact it’s a refreshing change to teach students who really love the material they’ve been told to read).
But the point is this. The first class I take is all about the ideological backstory of ‘Arthurian lit’; we talk about the fact that stories of noble King Arthur and his knights were what the medieval posh types loved to hear, reinscribing as such stories do the values and legitimacy of the ruling caste. Ordinary Brits of the period generally preferred hearing about Robin Hood and his merry men enterprisingly redistributing wealth from rich to poor. And quite right too. Now there are far fewer extant texts in the latter category, of course, because reading and writing was largely the prerogative of the posh, and the poor had to make do with oral transmission. Which is to say: there are lots of Arthurian texts in existence from this period because the posh had control of the means of textual production; the oral tradition that disseminated the Robin Hood stories proved much more fragile in the longer term.
This is something of a simplification, of course; but it does at least point the students in the direction of digging out some of the reactionary ideological substructure of, say, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. It doesn’t mean that I do, or that they should, hate the Idylls of the King; very very far from it in fact. But it seems to me it would be obtuse simply to pretend that this poem is nothing more than prettily coloured scenes from old romance. Similarly, understanding the deep ideological roots of the genre give the students a discourse with which to talk about the New-Age quasi-fascist absolutisms of Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, or to realise exactly why Monty Python’s ‘constitutional peasants’ are not only so funny but so right for the film in which they appear ( “listen mate, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government … supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony” and so on).
The argument from nature (‘to say that poetry is ideologically determined is like saying that breathing is ideologically determined’) is specious, I fear. Poetry is discourse, and discourse is ideological. People choose to make poems, of various sorts and for various purposes; they choose—-sometimes unconsciously—-to prefer some sorts of literature (‘I just love Tom Clancy’s novels!’ ‘I only read Christian literature…’) to others. Nobody chooses to breathe. (A breather speaks: ‘reading aggressively militaristic techno-thrillers about how Arabs represent a clear and present danger to the Liberty of the United States and must be bombed into submission is just something people do. Indeed in one form or another it’s something people have always done, just like breathing...’)
I’m sorry, this comment has spooled out to an unconscionable length. I’ll stop now.
Jonatahn Mayhew: “The word “texts” is perhaps not what I meant. “People” have always produced poetry, verbal art.”
But isn’t that begging the question? Most people don’t consider purely verbal productions to be literature unless they reach the stage of complexity of orally told epic, and do not consider most verbal “art” to be poetry. If you define literature to include verbal storytelling or singing, then you can say that it is universal, but when Latin Americanists refer to literature, that isn’t what they mean. It appears possible that this kind of redefinition may be a dodge, a sort of “oh yes, literature can be anything” that lasts just as long as the question does, after which one goes back to studying real literature. (Just as “nothing is literature” often appears to be a dodge.)
Dan, I’d want to see a wide survey of examples of the academic uses of the terms “conservative” and “progressive” before I’ll agree with you. I just attended a one-day conference in American studies and heard a lot about politics. But I don’t recall a single use of those terms. I have my problems with historicism, but one of the benefits of historicism at its best is that scholars are forced to deal in particulars and specificities rather than in simple left/right liberal/anti-liberal binary generalizations.
And I certainly disagree with your attack on the suspicion of professors toward their own subject. What many of us suspect is the way English has developed as a discipline. We might suspect the Arnoldian notion of literature as a social glue or common culture guarding against anarchy. We might suspect the New Critical discourse of literature as a form of complexity guarding against mass culture. We might suspect identity politics as an abuse of literature in the name of political ends. In which case, suspicion is the same as critical distance from the academic *uses* of literature. That sounds like a good thing to me.
"We might suspect the Arnoldian notion of literature as a social glue or common culture guarding against anarchy. We might suspect the New Critical discourse of literature as a form of complexity guarding against mass culture.”
I don’t recognize either of these descriptions. They’re caricatures, just another way of redefining what you don’t like as “conservative.”
No Dan, they are very brief paraphrases with a strong basis in fact. Read *Culture and Anarchy*. The friggin’ title was chosen for a reason: afraid of anarchy? Try culture! I’m being a brat, but come on, I don’t think my one sentence summary was any more unfair to Arnold than any other one sentence summary. Read the Agrarians. Read Paul Murphy’s *The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought*. From Amazon’s description of the book: “Tracing the Agrarian tradition from its origins in the 1920s through the present day, Murphy shows how what began as a radical conservative movement eventually became, alternately, a critique of twentieth-century American liberalism, a defense of the Western tradition and Christian humanism, and a form of southern traditionalism--which could include a defense of racial segregation.”
The fact that I included a line about being suspicious towards identity politics should have clued you in that I was attempting to be generous with my suspicions. *Any* professional discourse about teaching literature is suspect. Not politically, but because every academic formation is based on inclusion and exclusion, and people working in a discipline should always have a distance from the formations within which they work—so as to be at least aware of what they necessarily have to ignore in order to work within that formation. Professional discourses also have a tendency to calcify, to linger in the intellectual ice-box well past their sell-by dates.
Personally, my attitude toward teaching and reading and researching literature is made up of a little of all these discourses: I do think a common culture—or at least a common tolerance of culture—helps stave off anarchy. I do think that the complexity of art preserves values often neglected or actively abused in mass society. I do think that attending to the certain forms of identity in literature can have beneficial, ‘tho minor, political results. Can Arnold or the Agrarian strain in New Criticism be described as “conservative”? Sure, but like I’ve written twice here already, “conservative” does not describe a political platform. It describes an historical attitude. It’s in this sense that I think all literary studies is, thankfully, conservative: interested in recovering and preserving the past.
So stop making ridiculous accusations. They’re unseemly.
I will not deny that those “Agrarians” who helped formulate the New Criticism were conservative--both in the political and the historical sense. So was T.S. Eliot, who lies behind the Agrarians. I’ll even not deny that the New Criticism was in large part an attempt to counteract Marxist political criticism of the 1920s/30s. I’ve written about this, and not very flatteringly toward the New Critics. But this does not in itself invalidate New Critical formalism. One could be leftist/liberal (as I am, for example) and still find this approach a compelling way of focusing on a literary text’s aesthetic qualities. Eventually the New Critical baby got thrown out with the Agrarian bathwater: the whole endeavor was considered hopelessly hidebound and conservative, a way of, as I said before, colluding with the oppressive status quo. I find this whole approach--dividing both works of literature and methods of literary criticism into two categories, those that are politically progressive and those that are politically regressive--inane.
I’m not particulary interested in “recovering and preserving the past” myself. Only to the extent that what’s being preserved is still useful or valuable to the present. I especially see no point in dredging up texts or figures from the past only to label them “conservative” or “progressive” and dismiss or praise them accordingly. Unless the utility to be found in doing so is purely political.
I don’t think anything Dan has said here is unseemly, Luther.
Dan, then we’re in nearly complete agreement. When I argue that academics should maintain a critical distance from the profession, I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about the limitations of any profession at any point. So sure, of course I’m not interested in labeling various professional discourses as rightwing or leftwing either. Laclau and Mouffe have shown time and again that any discourse can be articulated from the left or the right; the same goes for attitudes toward literature and culture.
And I agree that there’s no sense to recovering texts from the past “only to label them ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive.’” The true point of recovery projects is to have a fuller sense of literary history or of the field of cultural production at any given time. I do think there was sense to feminist and African-American scholarly projects, for example, that criticized the sexism or racism behind certain formations of the canon.
I disagree that preserving the past should be geared toward the needs or values of the present. That’s like letting your bike rust in the rain because you have a great car right now.