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

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Worth the consideration of those to whom it may prove worth considering

Posted by John Holbo on 04/13/05 at 11:04 AM

Some would call this post navel-gazing. But I always say: think of it as putting the oomph back in omphalos. (What would you be left holding without the oomph, I ask you?)

A Word About Our Authors
You can click names in the sidebar. It seems worth mentioning that a number of us are newbies, although some of these have cut their teeth in comment boxes. (I hope they know not to use the emoticons on the ExpressionEngine control panel. We'd never live down the shame.)

Ray Davis is very busy these days. He has yet to post here. But if you've never visited beautiful pseudopodium.org, you owe it to yourself. Right now it's Anselm Dovetonsils there-and-back-again. What's good for the Portuguese is good for the Portugander babelfish poetry. With clip art. All the boy arrested.

Miriam Jones has posted, but if you've never visited scribblingwoman, she's a one woman boingboing for humanities stuff with visual appeal. I mean that in the nicest way; anyway, it's perfectly chaste, the way I say it. She's lady of the links. I don't know where she finds them. I have half a mind to encourage her to reprint the old one's here. I don't believe she's ever got a hundredth the traffic she deserves for such stuff. Maybe we could call it - scribblingwoman classic! Nah, too VH1. Well, at least she should sell the old links, I dunno, in a bulkbin at some expensive grocery. Like Trader Joes. It seems to me that rich people, who can afford it, should pay for this stuff.

I'll introduce the others later.

And now the tedious stuff.

A Word About Our Sponsor
Esteemed CT colleague, Henry Farrell, kindly pens a stout defense of the Valve, in response to a note of concern struck in comments to my inaugural post. First, the concern, by one CR:

I’m wondering about the sponsorship of the new site by the ALSC. Does it make you a bit uncomfortable to be affiliated with a right-leaning academic organization? An organization that got it’s own start-up money from the Bradley Foundation (which gave it’s annual awards last year to Heather MacDonald, Ward Connerly, Robert George, and George Will)?

I guess I’d be a little troubled. Hard not to have a sense that the ALSC is kind of like a right-wing infiltration org, suffused with Fred Luntzian doubletalk in its manifestos and mission statements…

Say what you will about the MLA, but signing on with these guys is like trading moveon for Heritage.

Here's a link to CR's post, which includes links back to the ALSC site. (What follows was mostly drafted before Henry's post appeared, by the by.) Henry's post has now garnered a staggering 99 comments. And now I find Zombies to the left of me, Thinkers ... also to the left.

I guess the only factual error is that Frank Luntz is the notorious Republican operative. But I do think, if you read the statements and history, and think some reasonable thoughts, it is extremely easy to form a view on which the ALSC is not a 'right-wing infiltration org'. But first, someone should email Tom Smith at The Right Coast. Tell him Holbo is the sharpened tip of a conservative flying blog wedge to crack the crib of liberal academe. You see, I have been round and round and round and round and round and round about the whole conservatives in academe thing. My personal views are well documented. I suggest you start with those last three links, if curious. (WARNING: the above posts have gone wonky and unformatted, in the wake of the great CT migration to WP. I need to straighten them out.) And no, I won't summarize my views for you. Well, OK, a hint: the problem of deciding - and of deciding who has a right to decide - what the optimum ecology of different types of professors is, is a difficult one. And a problem I think few of those writing highly opinionated opinion journalism about this stuff have really considered. Just a bit more about this below.

I think CR knows my political profile. He's asking about the meaning of the money, which is fair enough. You can read the ALSC history he links as a sort of smoking gun document. What makes him suspicious is the money accepted from the conservative Bradley foundation. [And I see he has found a Media Transparency page on the ALSC. Fair enough; some Scaife in there.] It clearly bothered the ALSC founders a bit to take conservative money. If you are conservative, it probably won't bother you. I guess if it bothers you, it bothers you in a 'sup with the devil, bring a long spoon' way. Since I don't know secret facts about it, let me try to speculate plausibly about why maybe you shouldn't be worried the devil will get you if you read the Valve. Or even if you join the ALSC.

It may be rhetorically counter-productive for me to write holbonically about this, because my view is that suspicions about the ALSC should be a non-issue, but the question of the proper relationship between politics and literary studies is an interesting one, so let me bootstrap the non-issue into a real one, I hope by way of laying it to rest.

If you really don't think this sounds interesting, feel free to go read something else right now.

Still here? Don't say I didn't warn you.

A couple notes before we start. I want to write later about what my positive plans for the Valve are. So far it's a snappy group blog with a literary focus. I want to do stuff - events, reviews - new stuff. But these first few weeks it seems OK just to get some posts up. My general idea is this: in the future literary studies stuff will move increasingly online. It would be nice to encourage it to take happy forms. My reason for garnering ALSC sponsorship for the Valve - since I could have just started the damn thing myself - is in part because I anticipate applying for grants for funds to do some interesting IT stuff. Maybe an online journal. Maybe some other stuff. I am reasoning that having the imprimatur of an outfit like the ALSC will make things we produce legit. I would like to be able to encourage people to write new sorts of things which could then go on their CV. (I realize this is sort of a selfish wish. But it's also moderately intellectually hygienic. The happy move online needs to be sped and supported with sensible adjustments to norms about what 'counts'.) OK, here's the short version of the story. I joined the ALSC because I'm sort of a grumpy lit studies guy. I go to the conference and do my short paper thing on film adaptation and attend one really great panel on Jazz (plus meet Timothy Burke, who happened to be in town.) I attend the members meeting. General sort of 'where are we going, what would be a good project?' mood in the room. Blogger opens mouth, suggests why certain projects might be exciting. Oddly, everyone present seems to agree. Couple months later, the Valve. I'm not really going to go more into this now because I don't just want to bury this actually interesting stuff in a long post about the ALSC and conservatives in academe.

I will also make lots of posts in future about my gripes about literary studies. Of course. More than a bit of that bleeds in below. But let me say: it might seem that I'm speaking for the Valve in this post, but the bees in my bonnet are thoroughly non-binding on my fellow Valve authors. I hope the Valve will be a nice forum for lots of people with different views. Also, the Valve isn't supposed to be an engine of anti-MLA destruction. I used to do that stuff, and it's OK to make fun once a year. (If something is funny, you may make fun.) But there's little profit in it. Frankly, the ALSC itself has sort of gotten bored with that angle, if I gauge it's temperature accurately. I'll talk more about this later. For now let me simply note that the history CR linked appears to have been written about the time Kurt Cobain shot himself, and I suspect the mission statement is similarly dated. There is a very early to mid-90's culture war vibe that comes off both pieces. This is not anything to be proud of, I think, but not grounds for suspicion of anything more than organizational inertia. Literary studies has, shall we say, drifted considerably since then. One reason I think the ALSC folks were happy when I happened by was they genuinely were looking for an exciting, positive direction. Folks like literature and want something to get excited about. Well, we will try.

And another thing. The following is written from a lefty perspective. I am a moderate lefty, so this is an easy hat to wear. But please no emails in response about how the ALSC is a left-wing conspiracy, for Jeepers Creepers sake. I argue from the left, for purposes of this post, because I take arguments as to why you shouldn't mind Bradley backing the ALSC if you are conservative are simple enough that you can roll your own. Obviously there are some conservatives in the ALSC. (Why not? Fine with me.) Also, none of what follows is official ALSC anything. It's me, a member of the ALSC, who has secured its sponsorship for a project, reasoning in what I take to be a cogent manner, about public facts.

What folks who the the ALSC is a rightwing infiltration org might be thinking ...[I don't have a Ph.D. in that comment thread over at CT, so I'm not going to footnote it.]

First, you might think no lefty should touch conservative think-tank money, even if no strings are attached. Call this the 'miasma' principle. As it happens, Mark Schmitt was writing the other day about lefty distrust of school vouchers on the ground that Bradley gives money there, too. The inference is that somehow vouchers must be a trap. Mark says, no: "school vouchers are gaining credibility as an idea because too many public schools stink." Not that school vouchers are necessarily a good idea, just because the problem they purport to address is real, but you never want to get confused that a good idea is a bad idea just because a conservative got there first. Of course, politics is a game, and there are times when party discipline - no crossing the aisle to shake hands with the other side - is sound tactics. But I submit that this just can't be one of those times. Party discipline over 'conservatives in academe' can only mean 'let's really do our best to exclude conservatives', which I think is a terrible idea. Lousy as academic ideal, unprofitable in political practice. (A large claim, but one I would be willing to defend.) You must judge for yourself, I suppose. Perhaps some of the following considerations will help.

Second, you might be worried about intentional deception. Call this the Text Central Station hypothesis. The Valve might end up an astroturf simulacrum of real, grassroots literary enthusiasm. The money from Bradley and others is explicitly 'no strings', but that might be a lie. Maybe they will demand and receive the right to plant conservative propaganda. I'm not saying CR is saying this. I'm raising the notion to get past it. It's implausible. I hope you agree.

Third, you might think that the 'non-political' mission of the ALSC is akin to a 'depoliticizing' project like David Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights. Let's consider the latter briefly. A relevant portion reads:

All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure  on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge  in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social  sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality  of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired  or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.

The difficulties this would pose for political science departments, religion departments and a couple others are manifest. Moving into literary studies, the idea might be: you couldn't get hired if you looked at literature from a political angle, which would be an intolerable restriction on perfectly reasonable lines of scholarly work. Here's a pretty good Jesse Walker article in Reason mag about why this Bill of Rights might be 'chilling' and, indeed, the seed of a perfect storm of frivolous lawsuits. It is unconvincingly (to my mind) rebutted by Horowitz here. Horowitz dismises concerns as abstract fantasy. But I see the folks at Cliopatria are writing about the Bill just yesterday. It seems in Florida, "Representative Dennis Baxley says that the [Horowitz-inspired] bill he introduced will give students legal standing to sue professors who do not teach "intelligent design" as an acceptable alternate to the theory of evolution." Oh brave new world that has such stalwart and lawsuit-happy defenders of academic freedom in it.

Getting back to the ALSC, you might think we are covertly that. The ALSC exists to flush everyone with an interest in politics out of the academic humanities, or some such monkeywrenching operation. To this I say: show me the mechanism. How is the Valve, or the ALSC, supposed to be engineered to do this sort of hypothetical damage? (This is not a rhetorical question.)

Fourth, you might take that primal scene with the Bradley money as confirming more generalized suspicions and notions about the dynamics of intellectual culture. Since Amardeep has lately posted about Eagleton's new book, After Theory, I'll go to Eagleton for a representative statement. At the end of a passage alleging (without argument) comprehensive intellectual, moral and imaginative infirmities on the part of those who failed to embrace Barthes, Foucault, Kristeva and Derrida, we get to the political part of the program. Here he is ventriloquizing the narrowness of folks like me, academic philosophers: "Death is not in everyone's view a valid philosophical concept, but if you discussed it in the language of Donald Davidson rather than Martin Heidegger, it might become so. Personal identity happens to be a pukka philosophical concept at present, but suffering is not quite so kosher. Besides, these French thinkers were clearly on the political left, whereas orthodox philosophers were not political at all. They were, in other words, conservatives" (p. 65).

As someone raised up in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition - as a former student of Donald Davidson - this sort of arch-dismissive sloppiness annoys me. There's a universe of intellectual wrongness in the grain of sand of that quote, if I may say. I confine myself to noting that being an analytic philosopher is not a political affiliation. Being an analytic philosopher isn't even weakly correlated with any right-left thing (except to the extent that, being academics, analytic philosophers probably tend to be moderately lefty.) And now imagine that, inspired by Eagletonian denunciations, conservative foundations start pouring research funds into Davidsonian semantics, metaphysics and epistemology. I'm racking my brains. Here's the best I can do. A Davidsonian anti-gun control slogan: "Guns don't kill people, events kill people." (That's a metuhphysics joke, son. Ah say, metuhphysics.)   

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. The moral of the story, which is also the moral of Henry's post (in part): what Eagleton calls 'conservativism' is conservatism, plus any intellectual project not expressly slaved to the realization of practical political ends. Now, bending over to accommodate this usage to the maximum extent, one may grant that a certain 'garden of Epicurus'-style withdrawal from dirt and hubbub into the rarified realms of Mind and Spirit may be called 'conservative'. Let us grant the sense of the allegation that the author of Thomas Mann's Reflections of an Unpolitical Man was a kind of conservative. Even so, it is totally unreasonable to assume all intellectual projects and aesthetic interests not slaved to political ends constitute 'conservative' retreat. To take the clearest counter-example, it is possible to pursue intellectual projects and political ends, while not pursuing political ends through the projects, perhaps because you have conscientiously determined that the projects aren't really very suitable vehicles for political activism, however nice in other ways. Eagleton's dismissive attitude brushes this obvious possibility aside, which is a great convenience to him in (I use the next term broadly, as the occasion requires) argument. If he couldn't convict Davidson on trumped up political charges, I think Eagleton might be compelled to admit he hasn't read him, and many others. (Forgive me my dark suspicions.)

Getting back to the ALSC, it's mission statement reads in part: "The Association holds to broad conceptions of literature rather than to highly specialized ones or ones that see literature simply as a means to other ends [emphasis mine]." The Bradley money will be regarded by Eagletonian minds as a cautionary fable about this sort of dangerous naivete: conservative cash as serpent in the Garden of Epicurus. Those engaged in intellectual and aesthetic pursuits that do not frustrate conservative ends end up as conservative tools. Having laid out this view - which I take to be Eagleton's, and I have seen it expressed elsewhere - I note that it is extreme. Specifically, if it is taken as providing guidance as to the optimal mix of faculty one should seek, it implies a truly astonishing narrowness. If the ALSC is only 'conservative' on such an extreme view of who should inhabit academe, how conservative is it actually?

For the sake of fairness - that is, to ensure I am shot by both sides - let me note that the mirror image of Eagleton's attitude is often met with. I was amused a year ago when Andrew Stuttaford, of the National Review, first complained about how in philosophy a lot of hiring is surely, shabbily political. Lefties hiring lefties. Even if no one asks, surely you can tell by the titles of the candidate's work, which must give off hints like a secret handshake. (What's it like to be a nudge nudge wink wink to a blind bat, as Thomas Nagel might say.) When it was demonstrated to Stuttaford that a typical list of philosophy titles gives no indication of political affiliation, Stuttaford was not mollified but apparently disgusted. No doubt there were Davidsonian titles in the mix. Supervenience, bah! What good is that for smiting my political enemies this very minute? Some folks aren't cut out for the life of the mind. If you ask me.

Fifth, speaking of denouncing politicization out one side of your mouth while advocating it out the other: this might be thought to be the ALSC's sin. Call it 'Kimballism'. Consider this FrontPage Mag interview about Roger Kimball's new book. "In many ways The Rape of the Masters is a rescue operation: it aims to rescue art from the clutches of those who seek to enlist art in some extra-artistic political campaign." Then, approximately three seconds later: "The great enemy of the totalitarian impulse, in intellectual life as well as in politics, is the idea of intrinsic worth ... What we see in the academic art historians I discuss - it is something you see in literary studies, too - is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war." Art shouldn't be political. It shouldn't be made party to ideological tug-of-war. Instead, it should be enlisted in the great political, ideological tug-of-war against leftism (whose roots are totalitarian.) This circle is squared when we realize Kimball is using words like 'politicize' in ways approximately as non-standard as Eagleton's 'conservative'. Namely, to 'politicize art' means not to find political employment for art but to deflect it from its inherent political trajectory. Conveniently, art agrees with Kimball about politics, so it isn't necessary to 'ize' it in any way to get it to agree. No more so than it is necessary to sharpen an already sharp blade. If you see what I mean. I think that's the view.

And an odd view it is. Miriam J was grousing the other day about the fallacy that "engagé critics are only interested in literature instrumentally." Kimball seems to have minted the converse fallacy that if you are interested in literature in itself, then even if you are a thoroughly engagé critic, somehow mysteriously you aren't using literature instrumentally. And Kimball - in case you were wondering - is not the ALSC. I don't exactly know how to prove this. Would you be so kind as to take my word for it? (Why would I lie to you about a thing like this?) If you read Literary Imagination, the ALSC-sponsored journal, it's not The New Criterion. (I'm sorry I can't send you to a snappy LI site with online content. They're working on it, I'm told.) The New Criterion has a blog, Armavirumque. It doesn't look like the Valve. I can well imagine The New Criterion consenting to publish something I wrote - some blast against Eagleton, maybe. But they would never make me 'editor' of anything, even so humble as a blog. Here again: what is the mechanism supposed to be, through which the Valve - or the ALSC - is some sort of rightwing tactic?

Sixth, don't you have to be kind of naive to wish to 'depoliticize' literary studies? Isn't it impossible to 'keep politics out of it', hence foolish to try? I think this is probably the least wrong reason to find the ALSC unattractive because - well, yes - there is rhetoric in the mission statement and history that, if taken flatly, makes no sense. But it is equally obvious that the beliefs and impulses expressed through these rather unhappy (in my view) verbal vehicles do not correspond to such a literal reading. Humans do not always mean quite what they say.

Taking these points in order: indeed it makes no more sense to 'take the politics out' of literature than it does to take the romance out, or the sex, or the conflict, or the humanity, or the suffering, or the joy, or the time, space and causality. Literature is bound up with  all the basic stuff of human life, and you can chant 'apoemshouldnotmeanbutbe' while rocking back and forth, monkishly fingering the beads of the work itself all you like; won't change the facts. Thing is likely as not to have some politics in it. But, honestly, no one is so mooncalfish as to need correction on this point. The New Critics weren't. We haven't gotten dumber since. Whence the extreme anti-political rhetoric, if we haven't gotten dumber? Kierkegaard: "a corrective mistaken for a norm is eo ipso confusion." (I elaborate this point at length in my good 'ol mock-Platonic dialogue (PDF), if you want the long version.) Those who gesticulate to the effect that there ought to be some categorical politics-excluding imperative are patently asking for a corrective. So, although the other side may - on the doubtful theory that all's fair in culture war - process the rhetoric as barkings of pitiful insanity, we may also consider whether the request for a corrective is in order.

What corrective? First, some folks think - and have thought for some time - that there is too much of certain sorts of criticism. The stuff of which there is too much gets thumbnailed as Theory, as politicized criticism, a couple other ways. None of this very precise, but the concerns I am indicating deserve to be considered. It is, if you like, an ecological issue. And these are very hard to adjudicate, which is one thing that leads to sloppy rhetoric. For example, suppose you think there is too much Marxist-feminist criticism and not enough good old Beowulf. Suppose you tell a Marxist-feminist. Probably she will be annoyed. For one thing, this judgment hardly gives her a reason to change her approach or her views, let alone to study Beowulf. Academics, if they are sane, don't believe P on the grounds that there ought to be x number of academics believing P. On the other hand, the belief that there ought to be x number of academics believing P might be very reasonably formulated with an eye for healthy ecology. So: you shouldn't argue against any individual on the grounds that he/she is on the wrong side of an academic ecological imbalance. On the other hand, such imbalances may be real problems, and who to argue with except individuals? [NB: Please note this is a general formulation of a specific problem raised in my inaugural post. All academic critics are on the wrong side of an ecological imbalance because there are 30,000 members of the MLA. But it is rather sloppy to fault any individual's work on this ground. Yet the numbers are a problem.]

Well, one way to argue may be as follows: ecological imbalance tends to lead to quality control problems. Wayne Booth had a piece, "The Future of Criticism", in a special 'whither Critical Inquiry?' issue of Critical Inquiry (Winter 2004). [I posted about it here before.]

Too many current essays seem to me to do no genuine inquiring. Many are only evangelical preaching (disguised with academic polysyllables); they read as if they had been rejected by editors in some field far outside “the humanities.” Even the essays devoted to some form of literary criticism too often commit the kind of a priori criticism that Ronald Crane once labeled “the high priori road”: the author is predetermined to find this or that evidence for this or that ideological conviction, and when the evidence is found, as the author always can claim, the critical task is over, with little attention to whether the “found” evidence is really there or only invented by the hypothesis.

Genuine inquiry requires that the author openly consider more than one hypothesis about the thesis or topic or question. Again and again I find myself annoyed by articles presenting a plausible case for this or that point, but with not a hint about rival hypotheses or sound argument about why they don’t hold up.

Now, whether you agree with this or not as a diagnosis of a significant disciplinary affliction, I submit that when folks complain about 'politicization' of literary studies, they are complaining about what Booth thinks he sees. And Booth is not guilty of gross naivete about the possibility of maintaining a hermetic seal around literary value.

We may distinguish two elements to this view (I'm generalizing Booth's discontent, because it is widely shared): first, it is sincerely felt that literary criticism and literary works are getting muscled into [cultural, political, theoretical] position, en masse, in intellectually incompetent fashion. It is the italicized bit that's important: the sincere suspicion that academically weak work has become predominant in places. That there is politics in the mix is secondary, for purposes of the argument, though there is touch of 'shouldn't we mind our knitting, and that isn't our knitting?' (If people would only be a bit more precise in their complaining.) To be a little more precise: literary studies had its grand imperial moment, when it wanted to be the empire of Theory - ruling over Text. When the wave crashes and retreats, we see the tangled driftwood on the beach and some of us say: what a lot of anecdotal social science and half-baked philosophy. This needs sorting out.

But this is only to invite a serious argument, not to conclude it: what's the stuff worth? This brings me to element two: the evangelical portion of the program. You can't get the serious argument started if Eagleton will never consent to hold up his end by acknowledging and treating you as an intellectual equal, for purposes of debate. (Nor will Kimball, if you ask him how he's so sure inherent value is always on his side.) Adam Kotsko linked the other day to an interesting critique of Eagleton's recent turn to Christianity. To me the stuff about unhealthy attraction to 'cults of personality' takes you right to the heart of what is wrong with every one of the many twists and turns Eagleton's views have taken over the years. At each point, he is sure he has the right answer, it is only a matter of finding a verbal vehicle formidable enough to ram it home with effect. Eagleton is an activist, not an inquirer, because he sincerely cares about politics and is apparently congenitally immune to self-doubt. But through whatever quirk of fate he finds himself an academic, which obliges him wrap himself in the trappings of inquiry, on pain of losing the authority the office may have (might come in handy). So there is a fundamental, unhealthy cynicism to his dismissals of any intellectual product he regards as an obstacle. (Don't see any immediate use for Davidson? Make up something about his politics! Don't want to argue with people about whether Derrida was a good philosopher? Declare that these seeming objections are mere symptoms of unimaginative idiocy.)

Does this seem too harsh a critique of Eagleton? Consider the fact that, in After Theory, Eagleton is, in effect, backing away from things he has defended for years. And he is doing so not only without explicitly admitting the validity of classic criticisms he must now concede - the whole concede-without-conceding mode makes for a most tedious and clumsy Kabuki dance. He is backing off without conceding even that the critics who saw what he now concedes are, after all, deserving of minimal intellectual respect. Tediousness on stilts. I've written at length about Eagleton. See that link above to my philosophical dialogue.

Does it seem I'm equating Eagleton with all of literary studies? Of course this is crude. (Do you really want my post to be 10,000 words longer?) But I'm getting at something folks at least sincerely believe is a real problem. Anyway, for present purposes, the point is this: lo these last 30 years, a 'conservative' in literary studies is probably a liberal in literary studies who has been mugged by the likes of Terry Eagleton. And by 'mugged' I mean: while attempting to mount a serious argument against something this liberal thought was mistaken, this liberal suddenly discovers others deem it permissible to dismiss him without argument on obscure political grounds. Or ad hominem. Or with evangelical offerings of some sort. And by 'like Terry Eagleton' I mean - well, I take it to be obvious that, while many academics in literary studies are not like him, some are. It doesn't take too many muggers to make a neighborhood feel like the sort of place you might want to move away from. (Do you notice how I'm recycling conservative-sounding lines. I kid, I kid!)

Back to the ALSC. Consider the case of John Ellis, who got the ball rolling (if you read the history). I don't know him, but I've read his books. Against Deconstruction is good. It has problems (yes, this is philosophy.) But it was a serious, sustained, sober argument. I read a couple of responses by those in the target zone. They dismissed it as intemperate polemic. (I'm sorry, I should have kept records of who said what.) Well, it wasn't polemic. It was attempted refutation, which deserved an answer as such. (If anyone is aware it received that answer, I would be curious to read it.) Later, in work like Literature Lost, Ellis learned his lesson. If you are going to be accused of indulging in polemic no matter what, might as well have the fun of indulging in a bit of haymaker polemic, hey? I think the experience of being dismissed out of hand has bred a frustrated rhetorical looseness in the victims. Which you can feel coming off the history of the ALSC and the mission statement, and in lots of writings by folks who think the humanities are in a bad way. I sympathize. But I don't really find that frustration very useful, and I want to replace it with positive efforts to build new, good stuff.

To make just the screamingly obvious point: if a range of possible approaches is being excluded without argument from the magic circle of academic acceptability, it's not obvious that the proper response is to form up a new magic circle, in which only the heretofore excluded approaches are included. That's no way to start a dialogue, but it is a way to start a new neighborhood if you are tired of being mugged. So there is a sense in which the ALSC is born in what I take to be a healthily corrective mood, which - for predictable reasons - is practically foredoomed to settle into a semi-falsifying norm. Ah, institutionality, which never grace will know. This isn't really very hard to see, you know.

And so it boils down to this: the ALSC is folks like John Ellis, tired of being dismissed. And folks like me, who may indulge in a bit of recreational Davidsonian semantics, and find it tedious to be politically condescended to as a result. And folks like our own Valve author, Daniel Green. He really is a perfect case in point regarding all this 'non-political' stuff. Daniel has a literary blog, The Reading Experience; and a mostly political blog, Outside of the Text. Now I recall he has gotten into arguments with folks about the advisability of this sort of exclusionary gesture with regard to political stuff. I myself am not one tenth so purist in my literary critical approach. I like a bit of politics in the mix, just not the stuff that looks like reject philosophy or social science (to me; looks that way to me. We can argue about it, if you are willing.) But it's clear enough how Green's brand of purism works in critical practice, how it arises from an interest in the writer's craft, and the reader's receptive activities, both of which Daniel sees as having rather tantential relations to political arguments. I doubt he is suffering from a fundamental delusion that his mind consists of autonomous zones - one for reading, one for politics. (If you told him that a CAT scan failed to show that one hemisphere lights up when he reads Updike, another when he reads the news, I doubt he would be surprised.) All our judgments in life about large things have a tendency to interpenetrate. Yes of course.  This doesn't make it a mistake to have two blogs. Doing it that way isn't a philosophical error, or ideological delusion, or political retreat. Not necessarily. (Why is this perfectly obvious point obscured sufficiently often that I must even type these tedious words?)

So the ALSC really did come into existence as a bonnet for an increasing swarm of bees literary studies folks acquired in the Grand Age of Theory. (Yes, I know this is terribly inadequate as a statement. Don't you think my post is long enough already?) Everyone who felt his or her approach was on the outs, to such an extent that it couldn't even get a hearing without risking ridicule, could wander to this group. Including some Republicans, I'm sure.

And maybe you think it's all a big pity-party - that the persecution of innocent aesthetes and stubborn rationalists never attained witch-hunt proportions. Well, I'm a professional philosopher. I wasn't there. Ask an old English professor who's been to the Culture Wars. Ask a thousand of them and get a valid sample. Whatever answer you get, all the discontented folks did was form an alternative professional organization. Even if their skin was a bit thin - and I do not say it was - would this moderate measure to keep it intact be so shocking and suspicious? Let alone dispositive of subterranean political plot?

Which brings me to one last point.

Seventh, why would Bradley and others subsidize this lot that, to be frank, probably votes Democrat. (I mean: they're academics. Academics are mostly Democrats.) Since Republicans shouldn't, by rights, want to purchase a clutch of grumpy Dems, there must be some trick angle.

Well, you'd have to ask them. I doubt it's anything too Machiavellian. If only because a Machiavellian Republican would probably look on humanistic academe as a blessing for its steady trickle of Ward Churchill-types to angry up the blood of Talk Radio. Getting the man of the street indignant about Davidsonian semantics is comparatively more difficult.

Maybe they are entranced with strange Culture War reveries. Uruk-like humanities profs gasping as the artificial barriers that have protected them fall and literature itself dismays them like Galdalf's light: 'it's just like they said in the movie ... out here they expect resuuuults!' And: 'What a world, what a world! Who'd have thought a little conservative like you could destroy all my tenured radicalness!' But I doubt they are so confused as that.

More soberly, I suspect you can backform a plausible motive from, say, the latest David Brooks column. The one about Bellow I linked a couple days ago. He has, I think, a sincere sense that solid, somewhat old-fashioned 'conservative' literary values inherently favor Republicans. This isn't just a pun on 'conservative' tricking the conservative mind, although I do find it confused.

The tension that propelled Bellow's work is now mostly absent from American life. On the one hand, you have a generation of students who are educated in a way that doesn't bring them into contact with the European canon, the old "best that has been thought and said." They don't have a chance to push back and assert their own Americanness. On the other hand, there are those in the academic and literary stratosphere who are part of the global circuit of conferences and academic appointments. They seem aloof from or ashamed of America, so they are not driven to define, the way Bellow did, an American identity.

Brooks is, if you like, Roger Kimball with the flaming eyebrows turned down. His sense of the literary and academic ground situation has seemingly been inferred from observations of the cloudbank of Culture War rhetoric. (Methinks it is like a weasel, or very like a whale.) But he isn't chewing the furniture. I leave it to you to judge the degree of accuracy of Brooks' assessment. Anyway, he thinks if Bellow novels and classic stuff gets taught, and appreciated, his side wins. The Eagleton types get knocked howling back (which is sort of true, but boyo is it more complicated.) Brooks thinks conservatives are more philosophical and intellectually mature and adept at argument and, therefore, natural benefactors of all this canonic wealth if it is duly promoted. So he would favor promotion as an end in itself, and a means to a favored political end. We lefties who also like this stuff, scratch our heads bemusedly. It is tempting to take Brooks aside and say: Terry Eagleton only denounces this stuff as conservative because he's intellectually lazy and wants to shut down the argument. The stuff isn't actually conservative. I think Brooks would smile and say: I'll take that bet.

So should we lefties keep under our bee bonnets this oddly bankable bonus effect of Eagletonian rhetoric, the better to cadge the occasional chunk of think-tank cash? I dunno. I'm planning to look for IT grants for the stuff that comes next. That said, I'm not terribly concerned some Bradley-type may read this post and respond, like the purchaser of a sadly non-functional roach motel: 'my GOD we've made a ghastly investment error. Turns out literary culture doesn't melt liberals. Look, they're just eating it!' No, I figure they must know what they've bought. Which includes stuff like I do, I think.

OK. This post has gone on too long. If you aren't already exhausted from participation in the CT Valve-fest, pour on the verbiage!


I really have to ask—two new kids, a teaching load, two other blogs… and 6500+ words just on this today! How do you do it? Is it available in the States? (Or Romania; my co-bloggers would be _thrilled_ if it were available in Romania.)

By Carlos on 04/13/05 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment


One small thought on this.

I am reasoning that having the imprimatur of an outfit like the ALSC will make things we produce legit.

But what I’m getting from the criticisms we’re getting is that it isn’t possible for many people to see the ALSC as legit.

The bewilderment some people have expressed is probably driven somewhat by the bad kind of dismissiveness you talk about near the end of this post—the kind of reasoning that sees the word “imagination” as a code-word for “dead, white, heterosexual, male.” But some of the questions people currently have about the ALSC as a platform (or a financial basis) for a lit. studies group blog, as well as any future digital projects associated with it, are legitimate in one specific sense (which you acknowledge in your post): most people know the ALSC primarily negatvely ("the anti-MLA").

This might not be fair, but what it underlines for me is that the Valve will need to establish its legitimacy performatively; the ALSC imprimatur doesn’t translate. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it would certainly help if we could point to a body of scholarship produced by people who are ALSC members that positively instantiates the kind of apolitical intellectual projects you’re talking about.

By Amardeep on 04/13/05 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s really quite simple, Carlos. I simply neglect my other duties, thereby creating problems.

Amardeep, I do agree that the ALSC needs to get its face on the web. If the only facts that anyone knows about it are that it was started as an anti-MLA thing and that it has Bradley backing ... well, suspicions are going to arise. In an internet age, the lack of significant content on your webpage looks like you have something to hide. I would like “Literary Imagination” to get itself online. (As per the post, I am told it is in the works.) You are right that it would be helpful for a prominent set of ALSC members to say: these are our academic papers. Look.

I attended the ALSC conference and it was, I expect, a bit like the MLA but with the nuttier talk titles filed down. There wasn’t anything at the ALSC conference that would have so much as raised an eyebrow at the MLA. A panel on film adaptation. A panel on jazz modernism. Shocking stuff! Actually, the ALSC page has the conference info for this year up. Folks can go sample the titles and short descriptions. Again, nothing hair-raising if you are a lefty.

The fact that the ALSC looks, in practice, like a proper subset of the milder side of the MLA creates part of its problem defining its mission. In 1994 the lines seemed clearer. These days, I should say, the MLA has sort of internalized a lot of the criticisms folks were making in 1994. Eagleton sure wouldn’t have written “Against Theory” in 1994. Now it’s verging on old hat. Yeah, Theory’s dead. Take a number pal, if that’s your bright idea. The Robert Scholes’ “Crafty Reader” approach, as a way of sort of massaging the problem. “Critical Inquiry” wondering whether it has a future. Stephen Greenblatt addressing the MLA and saying: we’re bored with each other, folks. The ALSC doesn’t have a mission to transmit that message. That message is already out there. Unfortunately, this ‘victory’ - this improvement over 1994 - is hollow if it doesn’t lead to practical solutions. Suppose I compelled Eagleton to confess, tearfully: ‘yes, my critical legacy is that I have made literary criticism marginally less thoughtful, in my failed attempt to turn it into a vehicle for my political ends.’ Would that cheer us up? Not me. (Well, maybe for about a minute.) I want to convince the ALSC that there are exciting positive projects to be undertaken. Largely, they have to do with exploring new forms of publishing. And I would honestly hope that MLA-types watching the show would not say, ‘curses, my enemy has posted again.’ CR wants to start a groupblog for theory-heads. Bloody hell do it yesterday, I say. We will blogroll you. Let a thousand valves, er, pump. It’s not a zero-sum game in which, if a few more conservatives get in the door as we move online (which they will), the likes of CR get squeezed out. I think it would not be hard for a lot of people, of all political persuasions, to be a lot happier with the state of literary studies.

By John Holbo on 04/13/05 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment


On a first name basis with old Franky Luntz, now, John? Just as I thought. Please pass along my apologies the next time you see him in the war room.

Kidding, kidding…

Thanks so much for taking my questions seriously. I think it’s a very good thing that you wrote this post. There’s no way at all that I can possibly respond just now to all of this. Way too tired after a busy day and yesterday’s festival over on CT. But a few thoughts:

The intent of the original post on my site was not to argue that there’s straight top-down engineering of your site. That would be ridiculous, I agree. The point was simply that a chain of endorsements has occurred:

Bradley and Scaife clearly see something in the ALSC.
The ALSC sees something in you and your approach.

This being the case, the point of my post was simply to encourage reflection on this series of interpretations, appreciations. If I were you, I was saying, I’d simply ask myself why this should be the case – what this trickle-down of interest and/or approval might mean regarding the stakes of your argument with literary studies as practiced.

The suggestion was to pause for reflection. Not to drop everything and burn down the house. Just as I would pause for reflection if, say, my work received a glowing review in The New Criterion or the National Review. Is this adding up the way that I meant it to?

I think you’ve given it a good start here.

Personally, I’d have some political-ethical qualms with taking the ALSC money, especially given whose pocket it might have previously been in. But this, of course, is your call – and a call for each of your fellow participants to make.

And I’d be willing to bet that, especially given the current US political climate, quite a few members of the ALSC would feel a bit funny about their membership if they knew about provenance of the funding. I feel confident that a majority of members are unaware of the Bradley and Scaife money. (Did you, for instance, know about this funding before my initial post?)

Anyway, good luck with the site…


By cultrev on 04/14/05 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks CR. I knew the ALSC was founded with the help of conservative cash, although I had never bothered to find out the particular brand. I didn’t know until your initial post that this funding was ongoing, rather than one-off. At that point I asked around and learned.

I do agree that some lefties might adopt a ‘clean hands’ approach and want nothing within two degrees of separation of Scaife. I guess I personally put it more in the category of rich folks giving money to subsidize the theater or opera. Because I just don’t see a mechanism for the crypto-transmission of conservative agit-prop.

If my work got a glowing review from The New Criterion I would welcome that as a complex irony, and therefore as a graceful ornament to the social order. I read the stuff they put online pretty regularly, and sometimes I like it. Mostly I read it just to annoy myself, just like I read Terry Eagleton. Clicking over to check it out this month - wonderful! “Thank You, Ward Churchill!” [My Machiavelli theory solidly confirmed!) I don’t read armavirumque because last time I checked it was a surprisingly dull warblog. Maybe I should give it another try.

If the National Review liked me, on the other hand, I might start to wonder what was wrong with my brain.

By John Holbo on 04/14/05 at 01:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For what it’s worth, John, the parallel among historians to the ALSC is The Historical Society. Both had their start-up funding from conservative foundations and both are headquartered at Boston University, right? Eugene Genovese launched THS in 1998 and promoted it as an alliance of the disaffected—Left and Right—from our mainstream soft left organizations, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. I helped Genovese organize it in its first year and, then, became disaffected with the disaffected. THS has not been any roaring success. It almost immediately renigged on some of its early commitments and appears to be dying from the bottom up. What it has done is to: a) launch a journal, edited by Betsey Fox-Genovese, which is lively enough but has a very modest circulation; b) establish a national office at BU and a presence on the web; and c) hold national conferences every two years. On the downside, its commitment to regional subsidiaries that were intended to be its building blocks, where the activity really went on and members would have decisive influence, has collapsed. Oddly, for an organization that was supposed to be Red America’s hope for the future of history, it has only a couple of scraggly regional bodies only in the urban centers of Blue America. And the commitment to holding conferences at or near universities so graduate students could take advantage of inexpensive on-campus housing quickly gave way to the allures of Bar Harbor, Maine, and very pricey settings. THS’s blog, Historicale, died aborning and Cliopatria welcomed its blogmeister, Jeff Vanke, to membership in our group. ALSC may be more successful than THS and under certain regimes I can imagine its imprimature carrying some clout.

By Ralph Luker on 04/14/05 at 03:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The ALSC connection was certainly my main reservation about joining this venture (although as it turns out, the current state of my day job should have been mainer). But not so much for its conservative funding—which I didn’t know about—or for its dopey mission statement—because who doesn’t have a dopey mission statement?—but for the notion that paying a yearly fee, receiving a closed circulation magazine, and getting the opportunity to expense conference travel had anything to do with literary scholarship.

However, one point of this venture is to help bridge the gap between professional academics and non-academic writers, and those things which rubbed me the wrong way might very well count as soothing strokes for my academic peers.

Whether the ALSC will be a particularly successful soother is another question, as Ralph Luker notes and as I know nothing about.

Now that I know about the funding, does it make a difference? Not to me, much.

First, I get no financial benefits from the ALSC. On the contrary, I had to pay them. I’m perfectly capable of hosting my own site, and do. I don’t have much interest in their journal. I won’t be able to expense any conference travel. This won’t look good on my CV (or “resume”, in the language of the barbarians).

Second, when you _do_ need money, it’s hard to avoid lying down with dogs. Evil greedy people attract money. All the better when I can take some of it from them. Even when I’ve had the luxury of working for a cause I respect, the money’s not 99.44% Pure It Floats. The University of California is a vicious landlord, a fighter of unions, an exploiter of grad students, and part of a state government led by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I’m not a big fan of covert operations, either. But I am a fan of jazz concerts in Europe and Abstract Expressionism at MOMA. I’d rather have the CIA put their covert dollars there than into assassinations, and I’d rather have Bradley fund an online venture packed with liberals (and worse!) than most other things they fund.

By Ray Davis on 04/14/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Did all the authors on this site have to join the ALSC in order to participate?

By cultrev on 04/14/05 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No. I’m not a member and don’t anticipate being one.

By Jonathan on 04/14/05 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am not a member either, don’t plan on becoming one, and hope that it does not become an issue. So I suppose that, after all, being part of the blog does seem, to me, to be several removes from Bradley &co. As Ray said, it’s not like any of that money is sullying my pocket.

Damn it.

Though if anyone is listening, for a high enough price, I might be convinced to forswear Eagleton.

By Miriam Jones on 04/14/05 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is running a group blog so expensive it requires backing from outside sources at all? I run a modest one—not as extensive as yours, granted. But it costs me 20 bucks a month, which even middle-class me finds easy enough to afford.

As for all the should-art-studies-be-political-or-not stuff ... While it may be true that a political p-o-v can be inferred from anything, it can also be true that over-politicization is possible. I was thinking of becoming an Eng-lit academic myself in the late ‘70s, but ran away from the field because I could see what was coming: intense politicization, and by many people who didn’t seem to have much real interest in the arts (or much of interest to say about them: race, class, gender—over and over again). I just didn’t look forward to having much to do with these people. Before mocking me too much, let me mention that at the time I was far more radical than the political people, so this was not a question of a rightie making excuses for himself. But I was in the arts partly to leave all the political debating as far behind as possible. When the political debates started pounding at the front door, I left the house. No great loss for anyone, of course. But still: I don’t think you can settle the question merely by saying, “oh, you can never rule politics out, and it’s a foolish dream to think that art/lit studies without politics is possible, because politics is by definition everywhere.” I don’t think that quite covers it.

By Michael Blowhard on 04/14/05 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John makes me feel good because he makes me feel like I’m the soul of brevity.

I think Ralph’s mention of The Historical Society is rather apt. I was interested in them when they first formed, because I think the American Historical Association (rather like the MLA) largely exists to smooth the process of recruiting job candidates and various other sundry wheels and gears of administrative functionality. It doesn’t necessarily feel to me like an organization that faciliates disciplinary conversations between historians, for the most part. But The Historical Society wasn’t much of a cure for that, even though they sounded at first like they had an alternative. Getting exercised about the organization as some sort of conservative boogeyman (whatever its funding) is to miss the point, that it was mostly a low-energy collection of people with very disparate and often old-fogeyish gripes about academia, historical scholarship, the AHA and so on, gripes that ranged from the painfully trivial or overtly personal to fairly high-minded, fair and potentially interesting ideas about reforming the discipline.

On the larger issues, I’ve kind of said my piece over at Crooked Timber. I certainly don’t see any reason to categorize what’s going on here as “conservative”, nor am I happy with the assumption by some that if we could so categorize it, that would in and of itself constitute a sufficient critique by the mere naming.

One of the metaquestions I have as a result of the CT discussion (and some others in recent years) is that with literary criticism which is more historicist in its orientation, what at the end of the day makes it “literary criticism” and not history? George Williams over at his blog cites two really great recent works that have won awards: The Making of the Modern Self and Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. The author of the first is a historian, the author of the second a professor in a Department of Culture, but both works read to me as if they were in the same discipline. Which is to my view all to the good: I’m on record as saying that we ought to dissolve departments in the humanities anyway, and have one big “Humanities Institute”. But if the practices of literary interpretation, history, and ethnography are in fact coming together, what if anything gets lost in that melding? At least one of the suggestions coming from the advocates of “appreciative” literary criticism is that a relation with the text itself, with its content, its meanings, its communicative and symbolic capacities, gets a bit lost. I’m pretty sympathetic to that suggestion: historians (and historicism) do have a way of compressing literary texts into “evidence”, into documents, into signs that stand in for practices, structures, identities. Nothing wrong with that: it’s very useful. But there may be other things to do with reading that we ought not to lose sight of, both technical explanations of how literature (or other culture) actually works or fails to work and “appreciations” of what literature does for us as readers (which need not be positive or complimentary).

By Timothy Burke on 04/14/05 at 04:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, the author of Graphic Design, Janine Barchas, is in a Department of English.

By Timothy Burke on 04/14/05 at 04:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Timothy, I think a historicist reading of a text is just that: it starts with the text and works outward. And ideally, it looks at it as a literary text, how it works, how it affects the reader. But in context.

By Miriam Jones on 04/14/05 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, there’s no sense in me not continuing to blather on. I’ll say this:

* I doubt the source of the funding for the organization that is the source of the funding for the Valve (and it can’t be that much money) has much relevance to the content of what’s likely to be written here.

* I do not perceive the Valve as a conservative endeavor, either in the sense that there are Republicans running it or in the sense that conservative literary values are being espoused universally. I do recognize that some of the authors lean to the conservative (literary) side.

* I think the goal of making literary studies more public and more accessible is an admirable one, and, in fact, it’s something I’ve advocated on my own blog over the last couple of years.

Having said those things, I disagree strongly with the assertions that literary studies currently is conducted in a way that the average intelligent person cannot understand or will not find interesting.

I also admit that perhaps I overreact when I read people making what I interpret to be inaccurate generalizations about how scholars of language and literature go about their business, but these are testy times (ask David Horowitz to tell you what I mean) and I can’t help myself.

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment


A lot of historicist criticism pays attention to the appreciative dimension of literature.  Frederic Jameson helped to encourage that in Political Unconscious: for example, his brief spiel on medieval romance is an excellent instance of how form responds to social cues and vice versa.  It’s certainly something I do in my own research and teaching as a historicist: Milton’s choice of blank verse for Paradise Lost is not merely an aesthetic decision, but a political one directly tied to the crisis of the 1640s-60s.  The same thing could be said for the ways in which Elizabethan sonnets blur the line between the poetic beloved and Queen Elizabeth-as-beloved in their pursuit of patronage.

The best historicist work has always remembered that aesthetics and culture exist in a dialectical relationship.  And those historicists who forget this have been recently reminded (at least in Middle English studies) by Paul Strohm that the text has its own voice that must be taken into account (in his Theory and the Premodern Text).



By on 04/14/05 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Milton’s choice of blank verse for Paradise Lost is not merely an aesthetic decision, but a political one directly tied to the crisis of the 1640s-60s.”

Baloney. Milton chose blank verse because that is what a poet of Milton’s learning would choose to write an epic poem in English.

By Daniel Green on 04/14/05 at 08:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A response to Michael B: why ALSC sponsorship? Well, for one, I sort of hope the ALSC will get its act in gear and do exciting stuff. I hope to point the way and so I concocted the Valve in a ‘more like this, please’ spirit. From a slightly different angle, the reason for seeking ALSC sponsorship is that I want to use the Valve as a springboard for some innovative online scholarly projects. I hope to get the ALSC to see that what we’ve done here is good, then get them to sponsor more stuff that might actually cost money. I don’t expect the money to come from them, rather from grants in support of innovative humanities IT stuff; but I do hope the ALSC administrative support will help on several levels in doing that. It is certainly true that if all I wanted to do was start a blog, getting the ALSC to pay the pittance it costs would be rather roundabout. Just selling blogads would do the trick. 

As to the politics point, of course stuff can be over-politicized, i.e. there can be a mechanical insistence on finding certain things in literature that just ends in implausibly manufacturing what you are supposed to be discovering. My point was just that saying ‘don’t politicize literature’, if seized in the abstract, makes no sense. Because it can only be intepreted, in the abstract, as too categorical. How are you going to depoliticize a novel like “1984”? You might say, ‘well, of course I didn’t mean THAT.’ But saying that is just a way of granting my point. What is being advanced as a sort of analytic point, or principle ‘don’t politicize literature’, is a slogan that is nonsense quite as often as it is sense. This is unfortunate on several levels. On the most obvious, you set yourself up to be dismissed out of hand by handing the target a superficially plausible reason for doing so.The target will simply note that the slogan is nonsense - and, in a sense it is. And then these folks will be able to successfully pretend that you are a pitiful idiot whom they are right to ignore.

By John Holbo on 04/14/05 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment


If blank verse was the natural choice for an English epic, why did Milton’s publishers require him to produce a note on “The Verse” for printings of Paradise Lost after the first impression?  In that note, he defends his decision to use blank verse ("English heroic verse without rime") on the Greek and Roman models as “an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of riming.” The only texts resembling an English epic in blank verse prior to Paradise Lost were Henry Howard’s translations of Aeneid 2 and 4 in the 1550s, a century before Milton was writing his own epic.  If anything, blank verse generically signified tragic drama (Milton mentions “our best English tragedies” as an exception to English verse’s vulgar preference for rhyme).  So his decision is first of all a deliberate departure from English epic tradition ("the first in English") and second an act of rebellion akin to his role as propagandist of the Parliamentarians.  It’s no accident that has Milton connect “ancient liberty” to blank verse and “troublesome and modern bondage” to rhyme, especially in a poem that clearly meditates on the Civil War, the Interregnum, and the Restoration.

I taught my students that last week, and then I went on to talk about the rhythyms of blank verse, Milton’s heavy use of enjambment, etc.  Aesthetics and historicism are not mutually exclusive.

By on 04/14/05 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob writes, “Milton’s choice of blank verse for Paradise Lost is not merely an aesthetic decision, but a political one directly tied to the crisis of the 1640s-60s.”

Dan writes, “Baloney. Milton chose blank verse because that is what a poet of Milton’s learning would choose to write an epic poem in English.”

These two quotes together, my friends, should be used as the epigraph of this entire enterprise.

By gzombie on 04/14/05 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d rather use Rob’s insistence that aesthetics and historicism are not mutually exclusive as a beginning. Because I quite agree. I’d only suggest that at least some historicist literary criticism lost sight of that in the last decade to some degree or another. Surely that’s not an overly dramatic or unfair suggestion to make?

By Timothy Burke on 04/14/05 at 11:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Intimations of detente?

Would “aesthetic historicism” or “historicist aesthetics” be something we could all agree upon as perhaps a “third way” out of our little bind?

(Actually, I must admit that, despite the side of me that all of you have seen so far, my critical-analytical practice is somewhat “conservative” in its approach. I’m actually, believe it or not, a close reader, first, last, and in between. I very much consider myself an “asethetic historicist” - general approach is to read the evolution of literary forms with and against socio-historical trends, developments, events. Even better, I like to back into the “aesthetics” of these historical changes themselves, the way that political or cultural self-conceptions take a literary shape… Feedback loop. But always centered on form, modes and manners of narration and the like...)

I would actually agree with Tim here - historicist literary criticism hasn’t always fulfilled this contract. I’d point to Frederic Jameson as one of the few who really know what they’re doing on this front…

And further (maybe this is spoils any possible detente, but I’ll try it anyway) I would argue that theory at its best and most applicable to literary studies is just such an “aesthetic historicism.” Does Benjamin count as theory? He at least counts as a theoretically inflected critic…

Anyway, while I generally avoid blogging ideas that might find a place in my work, let me just point you towards a post on my site that is at least a hint toward the sort of conjunction of the aesthetic and the historical that I’m most interested in: http://cultrev.typepad.com/cr/2005/04/imperial_impers.html

By cultrev on 04/15/05 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to demonstrate what a hard-liner I am on this subject: I won’t accept any kind of historicism if it means that literature--art more generally--can’t be approached first and foremost on its own aesthetic terms. If a work of literature has to be “historicized” to be appreciated, it’s just dead. (And I’m not interested in performing its funeral rites.)You may speculate all you want on the way in which “free indirect narration” (to quote cultrev’s post) in modernist fiction has something to do with “indirect rule in the British colonies,” but if that’s the best (or most immediate) thing that comes to mind to say about such fiction, who wants to read it?

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, but Daniel, I don’t understand why saying that necessarily prevents you from approaching literature on its own aesthetic terms. Obviously it would if the critic saying that thought that this was the only thing worth saying about modernist fiction, or at least the most important thing worth saying. Obviously it would if in saying it, you reduced the work’s own aesthetic terms to a secondary epiphenomenon of its historical connection to indirect rule, if you subordinated what the work of literature means, says, does to its functions.

When historicism is functionalist or instrumentalist in its characterization of culture, then I think it’s fair to be a “hard-liner” about it.

But when historicism is just a more intellectually curious, wide-ranging, well-informed version of the kind of interest that literary critics have always had in the sources and context of a text, I don’t see the objection. When historicism is about a thorough investigation of the act of writing, publishing, reading, interpretation in its contexts, when it’s asking “How did this work of literature actually work in its own time, and how does it come to us today? How does the ways in which it was read then structure or direct the ways in which we read it today?” then I don’t see it as intrinsically hostile to appreciating a literary work in its own aesthetic terms. When reading is seen as having a certain kind of path-dependence--that you don’t do interpretation in a vacuum, you don’t just pick up a novel and say, “Wow, this really speaks to me”: that seems fair, as long as it’s also a modest claim (e.g., that it doesn’t deny that it’s actually possible for interpretations to be based on an authentic rational and emotional engagement with the text, a genuine communication, rather than being the mechanical product of a reader’s time, place and social situation.

Can you read Shakespeare well, offer an interpretation of his work on its “own aesthetic terms”, without knowing something about his time and place in which he wrote, the purposes and contexts of his writing, the ways in which his plays were consumed by their publics? I’d suggest not. The point is that his work is not limited in its meanings and possibilities by knowing those things, or should not be: that knowledge should not be a leash on Shakespeare that keeps him in a certain kennel forever.

And I think it’s fair to say that some historicism has done and still does that: use history and context as a way to pinion meaning and possibility in literature to a fairly banal ground. I’d also say that some historicist literary criticism actually shows a surprising lack of interest in the richness of intertextuality, the range of interpretation, the density of how texts come to have meaning in the world. Not all--the 18th Century print culture literature that George Williams cites is often very richly complex in these ways. But on the other hand, work that’s more closely associated with postcolonial theory in my view frequently becomes painfully reductive and instrumentalist in its understanding of what culture is, what culture does, what culture meant in the past and could mean to us. It often becomes a set of iron dictates: you must read this work in this way as serving these functions.

But a hardline anti-historicist position makes no more sense to me than a hardline anti-interpretative or anti-"appreciative" position makes.

By Timothy Burke on 04/15/05 at 08:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...when historicism is just a more intellectually curious, wide-ranging, well-informed version of the kind of interest that literary critics have always had in the sources and context of a text, I don’t see the objection.”

I don’t either, but I also don’t think that’s how most current historicists operate. (Greenblatt is a notable exception.) Most historicists (most theorists as well) simply reject the “kind of interest that literary critics have always had” as hopelessly naive.

“Can you read Shakespeare well, offer an interpretation of his work on its “own aesthetic terms”, without knowing something about his time and place in which he wrote, the purposes and contexts of his writing, the ways in which his plays were consumed by their publics?”

Yes, you can read Shakespeare well without knowing much about these things. Can knowing them enhance one’s understanding of the plays? Of course. But again this is not how current literary scholarship operates. As you say, much historicist scholarship does indeed “use history and context as a way to pinion meaning and possibility in literature to a fairly banal ground"--better for serving one’s external agenda.

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think you can read Shakespeare well without an interest in those questions, or some knowledge of them. Most of us in our first or second or later readings of Shakespeare had that work done for us, in that the editions we read came with explanations of what many words meant, of the implications of what was going on, etc.  I don’t think there is a direct, unmediated relationship you can have with any work of literature: there is always a history there. Reading is a menage a trois: you, the text, and the history of how the text got into your hands as “literature”. You can choose to pay attention to just one partner and let the other watch, but it’s still always there.

I also think in a way that the kind of bad historicism that we appear to agree is bad isn’t always clear about its “external agenda”. Yes, people may make all sorts of extravagant rhetorical gestures towards the political in such criticism, but once you start to probe what’s actually being said, I think you find that’s all that is going on in many cases: a gestural invocation of a “politics” that the critic has no real systematic conception of. As Nicolas Thomas said of postcolonial criticism once, it sometimes amounts to tossing Derrida, Foucault, Said in a blender, a “politics” as a kind of professionalized gloss that hides the real substance of a critic’s writing. In fact, I’m sometimes struck that once you ignore the window dressing of invocations of Gramsci/Jameson/Williams/Foucault/Said (etc.) much “politicized” literary criticism is really anything but, that it’s actually much more conventional literary interpretation and exegeisis or much more conventional cultural and social history. Which I suspect is another one of the things motivating the irritation of many academic literary critics with their demonization by outsiders: they know all that stuff is a kind of professionalized accessory, and just read right past it.

By Timothy Burke on 04/15/05 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim wrote:

“Which I suspect is another one of the things motivating the irritation of many academic literary critics with their demonization by outsiders: they know all that stuff is a kind of professionalized accessory, and just read right past it.”

There’s a lot of truth to this.  The first draft of my book (the dissertation) on regional writing in late medieval and early modern England has theoretical affiliations with figures like Jameson, Williams, and Foucault--but you don’t see their names anywhere in the text.  My main reader at that point (my advisor) was very clear that he didn’t want to see theoretical jargon or pointless name-dropping in the draft.

Now that I’m on the faculty and revising the book for publication (adding new chapters, rewriting and expanding old ones), I’ve been told that I need to put some of that back in--that I need to be clear about my theoretical inspirations and alliances.  If I do this, I plan to be non-jargony and minimalist about it.  I don’t need to rehearse theory in my intro.  But I suspect that I will need to do something along these lines to get the book past the readers at the press.

At the same time, I don’t mind this sort of thing in moderation.  I look at it this way: every journal article or academic monograph, to borrow a phrase from comic book writers, “is someone’s first issue.” So Amazing X-Men or Daredevil or whatever has a text blurb at the front of the issue explaining the basic set-up to readers and giving them a short summary of recent events.  The sort of critical localization you’ve described is akin to this: it alerts the first-time reader, a reader who may not be all that knowledgable about the intellectual traditions informing the article or monograph, to what’s going on, what’s at stake, and where this sits in relation to other things.

But, yes, this has to be done carefully and creatively.  Large quotations from dozens of theorists aren’t the way to go.

By on 04/15/05 at 10:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Most of us in our first or second or later readings of Shakespeare had that work done for us, in that the editions we read came with explanations of what many words meant, of the implications of what was going on, etc.”

If this is what you mean by “knowing something,” then I suppose it’s useful to know it. At what point, however, does “knowing something” mean only scholars can appreciate Shakespeare?

It’s not possible to have a “direct, unmediated relationship” with anything. So what?

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel writes, “If a work of literature has to be ‘historicized’ to be appreciated, it’s just dead.”

Then fare thee well, vast chunks of the English and American literary canon that we once used to read, for we will meet again no more. The Norton Anthologies of literature are about to become a lot thinner.

Remember when Derrida died and everyone was arguing over his oft-quoted “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”? I’m guessing (and I apologize if I’m wrong) that Daniel is no fan of deconstruction, but…

Can’t we agree that sometimes the aesthetic terms of a work of art are so alien to contemporary readers/viewers/auditors that they first have to learn what those aesthetic terms are in order to appreciate the work. Does this mean we shouldn’t read/view/hear those works?

I’d agree with those who argue that we should be aware of the historical moment in which we live and the ways in which that moment affects our own aesthetic values. For example, there was a spate of articles in the popular press a couple of years ago about parallels between the career of George W. Bush and Shakespeare’s Henry V. At their worst, such comparisons are anachronistic and one-dimensional; at their best, they help us understand why certain works go in and out of favor at different points in time.

As I’ve written before, although some readers believe “that a definition of ‘the canon’ or ‘the classics’ has always been around and that we are only just now tinkering with it,” even a cursory look at literary history reveals that this belief is mistaken.

I found the all-too-brief exchange between Rob and Daniel over Milton’s choice of blank verse for Paradise Lost to be the most illuminating thing so far on the Valve. An expanded version of such an exchange would do a great deal to illustrate the different approaches being argued.

Finally, Daneil writes, “It’s not possible to have a ‘direct, unmediated relationship’ with anything. So what?”

So if you believe that, why are you behaving as if you believe otherwise?

By gzombie on 04/15/05 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I have enormous admiration for Derrida. I used him extensively in my dissertation. He’s very literature-friendly. If the works you have in mind can only be approached through the Norton Anthologies, then indeed fare thee well.

“Can’t we agree that sometimes the aesthetic terms of a work of art are so alien to contemporary readers/viewers/auditors that they first have to learn what those aesthetic terms are in order to appreciate the work.”

Yes, indeed. But this involves aesthetic analysis, not historicizing.

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You leave me behind on that last dictate, Daniel.

How could you set out to explain the aesthetic terms of work published in the past without historicizing? More to the point, why would you be that phobic about historicizing? Does it really take away from The Iliad if before interpreting it I try to understand the historical transition from orality to literacy? If I try to understand war-making and violence in the Greek world? If I try to understand sexuality between men in classical Greek society?

Wouldn’t it just be flatly a mistake to interpret Achilles and Patrocles as homosexuals in the way we mean that term? Or to talk about the ethical and moral problematic of violence and war in the epic as if it were the same as what we talk about when we talk about the moral questions posed by violence and war? 

I don’t mean to say that The Iliad or any other work has to be read only in its historical contxt. When Henry V in Shakespeare works through whether a monarch is responsible for the death of his subjects in war, I think it’s useful to know something about what the historical universe within which that question was being asked--but I think you can also find it a very directly relevant “modern” question about individual responsiblity for the consequence of actions. You can hold both things at once in your mind. In fact, I think you have to if you want to be an educated reader.

By Timothy Burke on 04/15/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Does it really take away from The Iliad if before interpreting it I try to understand the historical transition from orality to literacy? If I try to understand war-making and violence in the Greek world? If I try to understand sexuality between men in classical Greek society?”

No. No. No.

“Wouldn’t it just be flatly a mistake to interpret Achilles and Patrocles as homosexuals in the way we mean that term?”

Not necessarily. An interpretation is an interpretation. If something like The Iliad is still compelling to us today, this may be one of the reasons.

“Or to talk about the ethical and moral problematic of violence and war in the epic as if it were the same as what we talk about when we talk about the moral questions posed by violence and war?”

Yes. Literature is literature and life is life.

Back to my dictate. All of these things are perfectly good things to talk about. But my first impulse in reading The Iliad is to engage with it aesthetically. (And it is still marvelously effective in this regard.) If its aesthetic power is still accessible to us, this is something that lives in the present, not in the past.

By Daniel Green on 04/15/05 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel 2rote: An interpretation is an interpretation. If something like The Iliad is still compelling to us today, this may be one of the reasons.

And when it’s done well, you get something like Mark Merlis’ An Arrow’s Flight. But I can’t help but think it’s better to make that interpretation in full consciousness of its ahistoricity (say, after exposure to Stoppard’s The Invention of Love) than it is to make it naively.

By David Moles on 04/18/05 at 08:02 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: