Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Most English Major students end up in real life; the privileged few go to the MLA convention

Nick Gillespie covers the Modern Language Association Convention in three bursts:

1. Who's Afraid of the MLA?

No academic conference draws more smirks and bitch-slaps than the annual Modern Language Association convention. Held every December 27-30, the MLA convention pulls together upwards of 10,000 literary scholars ranging in status from rock-star professors feeling the love of their intellectual acolytes to starving, hysterical grad students desperate for any position in a perennially tight job market.

This year's meeting, which is taking place in Washington, D.C., features almost 800 panels and presentations, ranging from Tuesday's "Women and Devotional Writing in Early Middle English" (the first literature panel listed in a program as thick as a phone book) to Friday's finale, "Gypsies in European Literature, Culture, and the Arts."

In between are meetings of groups devoted to Andre Gide, Margaret Fuller, William Carlos Williams, and seemingly every other author with more than a haiku to his name; endless job interviews in which those nervous grad students throw off more flop sweat than Thomas Jefferson contemplating a just god; and, not uncoincidentally, more cash bars than there are in heaven (or at least Brooklyn).

Despite its preeminence within academic literary and cultural studies, the MLA convention is the Rodney Dangerfield of such confabs, getting little or no respect not just from right-wingers who reliably scoff at the unmistakable left-wing bent to the proceedings but from liberal mainstream media who eye the jargon-choked pronouncements of the professoriate with equal helpings of disdain, derision, and dismissiveness.

Indeed, the MLA has been a running joke since 1989, when The New York Times ran a story mocking the titles of some of the conference's papers, most memorably one called "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" (which on the face of it sounds far more interesting than the latest remake of Pride and Prejudice ). Since then, the MLA's public image, to the extent that it has one, has been as a sort of a cruise ship of fools, where loony tenured radicals prattle on about defining "the Lacanian gaze," undermining the persistence of "late capitalism," and resisting commodity fetishism (while ostensibly embracing every other sort of fetishism), and more. Such postmodern antics caused the conservative journal The New Criterion to say "Farewell to the MLA" in a 1995 article. But the MLA's politically correct and arguably even more annoying obscurantist tendencies have also provided fertile ground for an annually repeated story in the Times and elsewhere, one every bit as worn out and tedious as an Art Buchwald holiday column .

Last year, for instance, the Times pooh-poohed what it dubbed "Eggheads' Naughty Word Games" and ran through a quick litany of silly-sounding titles (somehow, the paper of record never seems to stop chuckling long enough to get around to actually reading the essays in question), including "She's Just Like Alvy Singer! Kissing Jessica Stein and the Postethnic Jewish Lesbian"; "A Place for Giggling Field Hands: Queer Power and Social Equality in the Mid-20th-Century Plantation Myth"; "'Dude! Your Dress Is So Cute!' Patterns of Semantic Widening in 'Dude'"; and "A Pynch in Time: The Postmodernity of Prenational Philadelphia in Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon and Mark Knopfler's 'Sailing to Philadelphia.'" Concluded the Times :

“What any of it has to do with teaching literature to America's college students remains as vexing a question to some today as it was a decade ago....The association has come to resemble a hyperactive child who, having interrupted the grownups' conversation by dancing on the coffee table, can't be made to stop.”

This is, to say the least, a peculiar way to frame coverage of a major academic conference in which leading scholars get together to discuss new research. As I've noted else where , beneath the mechanical reproduction of basically the same story every year is the buried presumption that literary scholarship properly should be about "teaching literature to America's college students." Does the Times worry about this same question when the annual chemistry conference comes to town?

As important, such a take misrepresents that vast bulk of MLA papers and panels which not only don't have laughable titles but are devoted to recognizable subject areas, historical periods, influential authors, and serious examination of new and old texts important to specialists. But panels called "American Neoclassicism," "John Donne and the Crises of His Times: Intellectual, Political, Religious," and " Troilus and Criseyde " (to name three from this year's offerings ) just don't get the belly laughs. It's also worth pointing out that the assembled scholars do indeed spend time thinking about connections between their research and the classroom. Hence, panels such as "Iconicity and

Literature: Teaching Strategies;" "Teaching Indigenous and Foreign Languages"; and "How to Teach Prerevolutionary French Literature to Undergraduates and Why We Still Should."

None of this is to suggest that the MLA doesn't in many -- perhaps most -- ways live up to its reputation as one of the very most reliable bastions of political correctness. In 1999, for instance, the group passed a resolution opposing the "use of sweatshop, prison, and nonunion labor throughout the academic world," as if there are no meaningful distinctions to be drawn between, say, a convict working in a Chinese textile mill and a Fedex driver delivering packages at Harvard. At an annual convention in the recent past, French social critic Pierre Bourdieu, beamed in via satellite from Paris, exhorted the tweed-cloaked masses to join unions en masse. This year's conference features sessions on "Marxism and Globalization," "Marxist Theory: Between Aesthetics and Politics," and "Academic Work and the New McCarthyism," suggesting that Karl Marx remains more warmly remembered in U.S. literature departments than anywhere else in the world outside of Havana and Pyongyang. Similarly, this year's program leaves little doubt that the p.c. Holy Trinity of race, class, and gender will not go begging for attention.

But still, if you care about literature or culture, pat dismissals of the MLA are a shame. Despite its excesses, the annual convention comprises a State of the Union address when it comes to lit-crit studies. If it's true that we're in the midst of a culture boom -- a massive and ongoing expansion in art, music, print, video, and other forms of creative expression -- we'd be wise to keep up with analytical tools being created and perfected in the nation's universities. And, truth be told, the MLA is far less ideologically homogenous than one might think. Over the past several years, I even managed to organize special sessions on such market-friendly, libertarian topics as "The Economics of Culture: Non-Marxist Materialist Approaches to Literary and Cultural Studies" and "The Anti-Capitalist Mentality in Literary and Cultural Studies"; both sessions were well-attended and received. Hell, this year even boasts a luncheon arranged by the "Conference on Christianity and Literature." As with most things, there's surely more here than what you read about in The New York Times .

To that end, I'll be covering this year's MLA convention for TCS, filing dispatches on a daily basis through the week. I won't stint on reporting on ridiculous political excesses, but I'll also be on the lookout for new and interesting developments in lit-crit that might just all help us understand our text-soaked world a little better. And I'll be checking out those cash bars, too. Really, who could walk by something called "Romantics Cash Bar and Dinner," arranged by the Keats-Shelley Association of America, without stopping for a drink or two?

2. The Kids Are All Right, Dammit

WASHINGTON -- As the 2005 Modern Language Association annual convention officially got underway last night, attendees could choose from panels on "Travel Writing and Empire" (a growth field over the past decade or so, as "postcolonial studies" looking at the interplay between cultural artifacts and geopolitics has gained in popularity); "Contemporary Fiction and the Novel of Ideas" (featuring readings of books by Richard Powers, Tariq Ali, and Nicholas Mosley); and "Religion and Cultural Studies: Postmodern Approaches" (which included interesting-sounding papers on "Selling Religion and Literature in Cold War America" and "Georges Bataille's Yoga Practice" -- somehow I'm guessing the Surrealist author of several of the dirtiest books ever was into the Tantric variety); and much, much more.

I laid in with a panel called "English Studies and Political Literacy." As one of several "presidential forums," scattered throughout the week's proceedings, this crew not only tackled a big picture topic but pulled in scholars from outside traditional literature departments -- in this case a journalism professor and a political scientist.

In the end, the panel didn't really come up with any silver-bullet solutions to what all agreed was a stunning and troubling decline in student knowledge of and participation in not just partisan politics but civic engagement more broadly defined. But far more interesting than what they said was how they said it: Panelists alternated between recognizing that they had to change their teaching practices in order to connect with increasingly conservative students (see table 272) to invoking large-scale social, economic, and political forces and, in the words of one panelist, a "concerted effort" by "Goebbelsian" masters of rhetoric that have turned the country to the right over the past generation or so.

In other words, the panel accurately summed up the state of exasperation that many liberal and left-leaning academics feel not just about the kids these days but about American society more generally. More promising, perhaps, were the signs that such exasperation is leading to a moderation of ideological excess rather than a heightening of it. That is, faced with a choice between a sort of bitter righteousness and increasing irrelevance on the one hand and engaging students with more fair-minded argumentation and open-ended discussion, some academics are choosing the latter. That's certainly good news for kids stuck in freshman composition classes, those dreary required classes which are often little more than clumsy attempts at political indoctrination.

Political literacy, noted Emory University's Mark Bauerlein, matters because "of the heavy burden that democracy places on its citizens. Every government that is not watched closely slides into tyranny." If students don't know the basic facts of government and politics, they really have no role in the debates that will greatly affect their lives, he said. Among the signs of declining political literacy in college students, said the panelists, were lower rates of news consumption.

In 1972, said David Mindich, a journalism professor at St. Michael's College and author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News , half of all college students read a newspaper every day. Now the percentage is 21 percent. He and other panelists invoked a long-term decline in youth political participation, a trend which is at the very least complicated by the turnout in the 2004 election, in which, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, the youth vote surged more than any other group's. Indeed, with some notable exceptions, the notion of today's youth as disengaged is not particularly convincing.

Nonetheless, the panel's moderator, University of Tennessee's Donald Lazere, attributed political apathy largely to economic forces. Students from all socioeconomic backgrounds need to work outside jobs to pay for school and that financial squeeze leaves them less time for study. I'm not convinced that students are working more outside jobs in the past but if they are, that may be one of the prices paid to have more kids going directly to college after graduating high school. Since the mid-'90s, about two-thirds of graduating seniors go on to college, which is a sign of a strong higher education system (even if far fewer than 66 percent actually graduate). So is, for that matter, the amazing diversity of educational institutions -- indeed, one wishes that K-12 education offered up as many competing alternatives as you see in higher education.

And is working a job really antithetical to intellectual and political engagement? I never worked fewer than 30 hours a week during my undergraduate years and still I found plenty of time to kill in the library, engage in wee-hours bull sessions, and indulge in lost weekends.

Lazere, who identified himself openly as a "progressive," also noted that many students are simply "lacking the basic Hirschian cultural literacy" required for engagement in civic life. Adolph Reed, Jr., a political scientist at University of Pennsylvania, contributor to The Nation , and Labor Party stalwart, argued that "kids are sponges, they soak up what's around them." The past 25 years, he said, have been a period in which there's been "a concerted effort" to push the country to the right, to stifle left-wing political activity and dissent, and to create a consumer model of education in which the professor is really little more than glorified counter help. He singled out the rise of the for-profit University of Phoenix as a particularly reactionary trend (ironically, the University of Phoenix was created by billionaire John Sperling , a former political science professor, drug legalization advocate, and one of the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party). Such forces, concluded Reed, work to keep students from being politically conscious and engaged.

So what is to be done? Reed champions a plan for the federal government to fund tuition for any American that wants to go to college. Journalism professor Mindich argued half-heartedly for a non-binding national exam in current events and civics given to all 18-year-olds; he also called for a reinvigorated Federal Communications Commission to start forcing networks to show more news programming. Reed's plan is unlikely to ever be put in motion for any number of political and economic reasons. What's more, it is an unnecessary solution. There's no reason why middle- and upper-middle class students shouldn't pay for their education. Targeted aid programs, both privately and publicly funded, are already available to help lower-income students; what is probably more needed is not more money per se, but a spreading of social capital that will match students with no family experience of college with schools at which they will flourish. But that hardly necessitates a massive program that Reed likened to the G.I. Bill. (the remarkable self-interest of an academic arguing for essentially unlimited funding for higher education went uncommented upon). Mindich's exam seems ridiculous on the face of it -- and his view of the FCC as something other than a negative force on public discourse seems positively nostalgic .

Certainly, the last 20 years or so -- precisely the period in which cable and satellite services gave viewers a end-run around the FCC-regulated broadcast networks -- have seen a massive flourishing in all sorts of informational programming.

The University of Chicago's Kenneth Warren emphasized the role of pre-college education, even as he gently chided moderator Lazere for subtly equating "political literacy" with agreement on a particular political agenda. Lazere argued that instructors shouldn't shy away from politics in their classroom, because "literature can't be studied independent of political literacy." In fact, he said, they should bring in a wide array of sources, including The Nation and The Weekly Standard , where appropriate or relevant. That's all well and good. But Warren keyed into one of the unfortunate subtexts of any discussion of politics in academe (and, truth be told, everywhere else too). There's always a sense that a speaker thinks that once you understand things as clearly as he does, you'll of course agree completely with him. In this context, to be educated and smart strongly implies agreement on major issues. Which is one reason why the good faith of the classroom instructor is paramount: Students will turn off immediately if they realize they are being railroaded into agreement when discussing a topic.

Emory's Bauerlein -- who during a stint at the National Endowment for the Arts produced the widely discussed report "Reading at Risk" -- pushed the point of true ideological diversity. "We need more and wider perspectives," represented in the classroom, he said. "Bring in a little less Foucault and a little more Hayek. Some Whitaker Chambers to go along with Ralph Ellison." Bauerlein said to bring in a libertarian perspective, one that will upset longstanding Manichean right-left categories. One policy proposal with which I agreed wholeheartedly was his insistence that, along with The Nation and Weekly Standard, instructors should "bring in Reason magazine" (full disclosure: Bauerlein reviewed The Anti-Chomsky Reader for Reason earlier this year). In a more contentious moment, Bauerlein also pushed for instructors to provide students with an American identity that is positive. "Often the identity students get is too negative," he said. "We need not uncritical patriotism, but some line of argument about American history that students can espouse while criticizing other elements." That sort of positive feeling would, he argued, make it easier for students to want to become engaged politically and civically.

Arguably the most surprising presentation was offered up by Patricia Roberts-Miller, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of Texas at Austin. Roberts-Miller argued that in the classroom, "everyone's politics" -- including that of the professor's -- "should be open to change." She talked about the downsides of what she called "Calvinist political literacy," in which individuals, irrespective of ideology, look for reasons not to engage in political conversation. If Calvinism separates people into saints and sinners whose fates are predetermined and fixed forever, Calvinist political literacy means you don't have to argue with anyone with whom you disagree, because such interaction can only reveal differences rather than persuade.

Channeling radical education theorist Paolo Freire, she warned against thinking of students as "empty vessels" into which knowledge or enlightenment is poured. Rather, they need to be respected and taken seriously even and especially when they appear to be politically reactionary or obtuse.

Most of this is common sense, of course. But what is surprising is that it's coming from a composition theorist. When one digs into press accounts about the most tendentious classes in today's universities and colleges, they are often freshman comp classes. Over the past two decades or so, many of the designers of composition curricula have consciously seen those classes as the ideal place for political indoctrination to a sort of standard left-wing agenda. As one professor friend of mine told me, she's been in department meetings where comp doyennes have declared, "This is our best shot at getting into the minds of students."

So it's heartening to hear someone in Roberts-Miller's position talking the way she does. It suggests that one of the great virtues of higher education -- open-ended discussion -- is hardly a dead letter. Ironically, the beleaguered position of the left in contemporary America, if not the country's universities, may lead to its resurgence as it forced to engage and persuade indifferent -- or skeptical -- students.

3. When Darwin Meets Dickens

One of the subtexts of this year's Modern Language Association conference -- and, truth be told, of most contemporary discussions of literary and cultural studies -- is the sense that lit-crit is in a prolonged lull. There's no question that a huge amount of interesting work is being done -- scholars of 17th-century British and Colonial American literature, for instance, are bringing to light all sorts of manuscripts and movements that are quietly revising our understanding of liberal political theory and gender roles -- and that certain fields -- postcolonial studies, say, and composition and rhetoric -- are hotter than others. But it's been years -- decades even -- since a major new way of thinking about literature has really taken the academic world by storm.

If lit-crit is always something of a roller-coaster ride, the car has been stuck at the top of the first big hill for a while now, waiting for some type of rollicking approach to kick in and get the blood pumping again. What's the next big thing going to be? The next first-order critical paradigm that -- like New Criticism in the 1940s and '50s; cultural studies in the '60s; French post-structural theory in the '70s, and New Historicism in the '80s -- really rocks faculty lounges? (Go here for summaries of these and other movements).

It was with this question in mind that I attended yesterday's panel on "Cognition, Emotion, and Sexuality," which was arranged by the discussion group on Cognitive Approaches to Literature and moderated by Nancy Easterlin of the University of New Orleans. Scholars working in this area use developments in cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields to figure out not only how we process literature but, to borrow the title of a forthcoming book in the field, Why We Read Fiction.

Although there are important differences, cognitive approaches often overlap with evolutionary approaches, or what The New York Times earlier this year dubbed "The Literary Darwinists"; those latter critics, to quote the Times:

“ books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or exemplify these basic facts.“

Both cognitive and evolutionary approaches to lit-crit have been gaining recognition and adherents over the past decade or so. Cognitive critics are less interested in recurring plots or specific themes in literature, but they share with the Darwinists an interest in using scientific advances to help explore the universally observed human tendency toward creative expression, or what the fascinating anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake called in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, “making special.”

This unironic -- though hardly uncritical -- interest in science represents a clear break with much of what might be called the postmodern orthodoxy, which views science less as a pure source of knowledge and more as a means of controlling and regulating discourse and power. The postmodern view has contributed to a keener appreciation of how appeals to science are often self-interested and obfuscating. In this, it was anticipated in many ways by libertarian analyses such as F.A. Hayek's The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (1952) and Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, which exposed a hidden agenda of social control behind the helper rhetoric of the medical establishment and, not uncoincidentally, appeared the same year as Michel Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic. (For more on connections between libertarian thought and postmodernism, go here and here.)

At the same time, the postmodern view of science as simply one discourse among many could be taken to pathetic and self-defeating extremes, as the Sokal Hoax, in which physicist Alan Sokal published a secret parody in a leading pomo journal, illustrated. Indeed, the status of science -- and perhaps especially evolution and theories of human cognition that proceed from it -- in literary studies is curious. On the one hand, a belief in evolution as opposed to creationism or Intelligent Design is considered by most scholars a sign of cosmopolitan sophistication and a clear point of difference with religious fundamentalists. On the other hand, there are elements of biological determinism implicit in evolution that cut against various left-wing agendas -- and against the postmodern assertions that all stories are equally (in)valid.

Yet if evolution is real in any sense of the word, it must have a profound effect on what we do as human beings when it comes to art and culture.

Which brings us back to the "Cognition, Emotions, and Sexuality" panel, which sought, pace most literary theory of the past few decades, to explore universal processes by which human beings produce and consume literature. That alone makes the cognitive approach a significant break with the status quo.

The first presenter was Alan Palmer, an independent scholar based in London and the author of the award-winning Fictional Minds. For Palmer, how we process fiction is effectively hardwired, though not without cultural emphases that depend on social and historical context; it also functions as a place where we can understand more clearly how we process the "real" world. After summarizing recent cognitive work that suggests "our ways of knowing the world are bound up in how we feel the world...that cognition and emotion are inseparable," he noted that the basic way we read stories is by attributing intentions, motives, and emotions to characters. "Narrative," he argued, "is in essence the description of fictional mental networks," in which characters impute and test meanings about the world.

He led the session through a close reading of a passage from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The section in question was filled with discrepant emotions popping up even in the same short phrases. For instance, the female protagonist Oedipa Maas at one point hears in the voice of her husband "something between annoyance and agony." Palmer -- whose argument was incredibly complex and is hard to reproduce -- mapped out the ways in which both the character and the reader made sense of those distinct emotional states of mind. The result was a reading that, beyond digging deep into Pynchon, also helped make explicit the "folk psychology" Palmer says readers bring to texts -- and how we settle on meanings in the wake of unfamiliar emotional juxtapositions. As the panel's respondent, University of Connecticut's Elizabeth Hart, helpfully summarized, Palmers' reading greatly "complexified the passage" and was "richly descriptive" of the dynamics at play.

The second paper, by Auburn's Donald R. Wehrs, argued that infantile sexual experiences based around either the satisfaction of basic wants by mothers or proximity to maternal figures grounded the metaphors used by various philosophers of religious experience. Drawing on work that argues that consciousness emerges from the body's monitoring itself in relation to objects outside of it, Wehrs sketched a metaphoric continuum of images of religious fulfillment with St. Augustine at one end and Emmanuel Levinas on the other; he also briefly located the preacher Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson on the continuum too. As Hart the respondent noted, Wehrs showed that there's "an emotional underwebbing to the history of ideas." That is, a set of diverse philosophers expressed a "common cognitive ground rooted in infantile erotic experience rather than practical reasoning."

Augustine, says Wehrs, conflates the divine and human and locates the origin of love and religious ecstasy with the stilling of appetite or desire. In essence, peace is understood as the absence of bad appetites, which accords with one basic infantile erotic or physical response to wants. Levinas, on the other hand, also draws on infantile experience but focuses not on ingestion but on proximity to the mother. Both of these reactions are basic cognitive realities that all humans experience as infants; together, they create a range of possible metaphors that recur in religious discussions. On the one hand, Augustine talks of being one with God (and the mother), of an inviolate bond that shows up in somewhat attenuated form in Jonathan Edward's imagery of being penetrated by God. On the other, Levinas stresses proximity to the Other, which mirrors infantile cognitive experience of closeness with the mother. This understanding, he said, is also reflected in Emerson's metaphors of resting and laying in Nature.

Will cognitive approaches become the next big thing in lit-crit? Or bio-criticism of the Darwinian brand? That probably won't happen, even as these approaches will, I think, continue to gain in reputation and standing. More to the point, as I argued in a 1998 article, these scholars who are linking Darwin and Dickens have helped challenge an intellectual orthodoxy that, however exciting it once was, seems pretty well played out. In his tour de force Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation (1996), Temple's Robert Storey -- one of Nancy Easterlin's doctoral advisors -- warns:

“If [literary theory] continues on its present course, its reputation as a laughingstock among the scientific disciplines will come to be all but irreversible. Given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is still possible for literary theory to recover both seriousness and integrity and to be restored to legitimacy in the world at large.”

Ten years out, Storey's warning seems less pressing. The lure of the most arch forms of anti-scientific postmodernism has subsided, partly because of their own excesses and partly because of challenges such as Storey's. As important, the work being done by the cognitive scholars and others suggest that literature and science can both gain from ongoing collaboration.

(Nick Gillespie -- -- is the editor-in-chief of Reason.)

4. Here's a dour but hopeful view of some of the matter at hand:

Literary Aesthetics: the Very Idea -- by LINDSAY WATERS

Trying to figure out what's up with American literary scholarship — I mean the writing coming out of colleges that relates to literature — is difficult. This stuff cannot be understood by the norms of healthy literary criticism as it has been practiced from Aristotle to Helen Vendler.

Ever since it became professional and, for the most part, lost touch with the readers who have fostered the little-magazine criticism that reaches back to The Spectator, today's academic scholarship has become separated from its grounding: It is no longer connected to the very medium that gave it rise, literature.

For years real, live, ink-stained, tear-stained artists were granted refuge in the university, but they have been replaced by a breed domesticated in master's-of-fine-arts programs. Over in literature departments, what passes as scholarship has also become more scholastic. We've heard the many rants about how it is elitist, or politicized, or irrelevant, or abstruse, or too theoretical, or not theoretical enough. My concern is more basic. Literary criticism no longer aims to appreciate aesthetics — to study how human beings respond to art. Do you get dizzy when you look at a Turner painting of a storm at sea? Do certain buildings make you feel insignificant while others make you feel just the right size? Without understanding that intensely physical reaction, scholarship about the arts can no longer enlarge the soul.

The problem is not just that literary scholarship has become disconnected from life. Something else more suspicious has happened to professional criticism in America over the past 30 years, and that is its love affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the author's or reader's intention or ideology — not at all the same thing as art. As a result, literary critics are devoted to saving the world, not to saving literature for the world, and to internecine battles that make little sense outside academe.

The death of Susan Sontag, in 2004, served to point out just how much things had changed in the critical world since the annus mirabilis of 1964, when the Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl and Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation" appeared. She spray-painted on the walls of the academy the incendiary line, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." Railing against imposing theories of interpretation on the "sensuous surface" of art, she rejected the New Criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism, and other attempts to inflict meaning on art. Pleasure was her principle. Forty years on, what we have 24/7 in most English departments is the complete and total ascendancy of hermeneutics. Instead of the erotics of art, we've got the neurotics of art: the meaning-mongering of interpretation for its own sake.

A criticism devoted to aesthetics might take a novel like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and note how its main character, Caroline Meeber, again and again finds herself in front of sheets of glass — store windows, mirrors — that seem to beckon her in. The question would not be whether her vanity or love of material objects is good or bad; it would be how Dreiser invites all of us to fall through the glass with Carrie, to become a part of the story and experience ourselves as vain and frail and ambitious. Contemporary meaning-mongers would emphasize how Dreiser is commenting on the materialism of a market-driven society: Whether arguing that he is endorsing or condemning it, they would just want to know the bottom line.

How did this come about? In part it was the so-called theory wars over the influence of European literary and cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida. Those wars are over, and we are left with the rubble.

I want to argue for a fundamental reconsideration of the usual narrative of the culture wars. Literary critics may still endlessly repeat the mantra of the backlash against theory that swept to power during the Reagan years: Theory is too devoted to challenging meaning. It is nihilistic. It robs us of ever finding out what an author or text is saying. But it was not the theorists who declared war on art, with their philosophy and their left-wing politics. It was the literary critics who put in their place a no-nonsense business, a legalistic parsing of meaning that masks a deep contempt for what a text is or might be to us.

The last time you looked down the corridor may have been when theorists were raising their banners, but the reality is that a much more repressive approach was seizing control. Now we are told we should boil down the moral meaning of a work to a sentence. Say whether it is favorable to a particular group. If not, ban it from the classroom. I exaggerate, but only a little.

To be sure, theory is not dead. It has become institutionalized in literature departments and continues to be taught. But it has lost its life force. What the theory wars really did was convince literary critics that fretting about how meanings get constituted in art is dilly-dallying — in a word, "French."

What gets lost in this disdain for things "foreign" is that theorists were concerned with the artwork itself, with responding to it on many different levels — with the aesthetic experience. They wanted to process their own engagement with a text, finding clues in their difficulties with it to take them deep into the heart of its darkness. To a critic like Barbara Johnson, the division between form and content did not exist. She drew on psychoanalysis and feminist theory to delve into the irritation that she felt, for example, as a reader of Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand. Beneath her own discomfort, she found the narcissistic conflicts of the protagonist Helga Crane, daughter of a white mother and black father; behind those, society's conflicts over too easily accepted differences like white/black or male/female. Reading was a physical experience.

Today, in 2005, it looks as if Sontag was dead wrong, her words a painful reminder of how foolish we all sounded back then when we wore our bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts. Interpretation has established its dominion over American literary scholarship. In so doing, it is threatening to wipe out 30 years of postmodernism that emerged out of the intellectual ferment of the 1960s. Can we break its hold?

Two big books before us, by two of the most senior literary scholars in the United States, dramatize our choices. Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of American literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has given us The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004). It trumpets the party of interpretation. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at Stanford University, has given us Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford University Press, 2004). It provides a look into the party of affect, emotion, aesthetics. More about the books in a bit.

First, though, I should explain that I am not an innocent bystander. I am a publisher, and, like Major Barbara's father, I sell munitions to all sides. No matter who wins or loses, I stand to gain. One army wants to buy Benjamin, Paul de Man, and other theorists who address the aesthetic experience. Another army wants to reinforce its bunkers with Stanley Fish and Michaels and shoot down the idea that literary theory can ever tell us anything about literature. The New Historicism, which has become an antidote to the dreaded deconstruction of theorists, and the default position for most literature professionals, feeds the second army, reducing a text to its historical and moral significance. Then there are those who find provisions in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, denigrating literature by reducing it to the periphery of a theory of transnational capitalism.

I sell just about all of them, as well as all manner of literary critics like Jonathan Bate, Frank Kermode, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, and Tony Tanner. And if Michaels wants to claim, as he does in The Shape of the Signifier, that de Man is Satan incarnate and the root of all evil, that's good for me, is it not? De Man's stock has been sinking a bit, and Michaels's assault — no matter how ill founded — can only help me sell the tarnished goods. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Who cares if they be but poppies?

But my position is not, in fact, one of neutrality. I publish many authors whose views I only partly admire, but none whose views I despise, and I always have an agenda, in the form of a set of hypotheses about what I think is emerging and what I think will keep the humanities alive. So, for the past 10 or so years, I have been hunting for books that will renew a focus on our engagement with art.

The problem that besets the literary academy is not about politics, conventionally understood. Indeed, critics who style themselves left or right are often indistinguishable to me. What they share is the reduction of literature to an idea, a moral. America is a nation divided irreconcilably, it seems. Everywhere you go, you have to declare which side you're on: "red state" or "blue state." But our ease in answering is deceptive because life and literature are much more complex than that. All the loose talk about ideology and politics that prevailed in English departments in the 1980s and 90s has made it hard for the inhabitants to understand the workings of ideology itself. Despite the much-quoted charges that the humanities have been taken over by the left (and despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those on the left who argue that literary criticism is fighting the good fight), I believe that what we're really seeing is a reactionary tilt — away from the rebellious, destabilizing, liberating aspects of art. Let me try to connect some of the dots.

R ichard M. Weaver, who was a professor of English at the University of Chicago (Sontag's alma mater and mine), has become since he died, in 1963just before the story I've been telling begins with Sontaga hero to conservative intellectuals in America. To me, Weaver was a Confidence-Man, a peculiar American type anatomized in excruciating detail by Herman Melville. He had snake oil to sell us, something that would make everything better by restoring our moral vitality. The problem was that we had trusted him without question. Weaver glorified the virtues of the Southern plantation class and the power of ideas that they demonstrated. In Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago Press, 1948), he argued against modernism's abandonment of universals. The great sin of his age, he said, was that it promoted the senses and emotion over reason and ideas.

A few years after Weaver's death (and intellectual renaissance), Fish published his book on Milton, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost" (St. Martin's Press, 1967). The difference between Sontag and Fish was total. Sontag decried approaching art only as something to be interpreted; Fish provided the foundation of politically correct scholarship that manhandles art in its promotion of interpretation. But Fish and Weaver shared a loyalty to ideas above all else. With an authoritarian zeal reminiscent of the moralism that caused New Englanders to drown witches centuries ago, Fish asked readers of Milton to deny what lies on the page, arguing that the poet wants us to understand that "poetry's demands are illegitimate because they proceed from, and return to, the affections." Milton "would want his readers to resist" the demands of poetry, Fish said. And so did he, calling on them to make their own meaning out of Paradise Lost. What Fish did was exactly what Sontag said the advocates of "interpretation" do — tear up literature and reassemble it to say what they think it says. Many of us thought Sontag had demolished that approach. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end.

Fish's subsequent writings have gone in many directions, but he has never wavered in his inclination to resist the physical and aesthetic pleasures of the text and to prefer its doctrine. And he has never ceased to practice a method of allegorical interpretation that makes the text conform to interpreters' ideas. The interpreters who have followed in his wake continue to shuck text of its form, reducing it to a proposition to be either affirmed or denied, the way a farmer shucks an ear of corn. When they're done interpreting a poem, what is left of the poetry?

This kind of literary criticism has nothing to do with aesthetic responses to art, only with conscious acts of will. Nothing is to be left up to the senses, to the emotions. We have only to make a decision about the goodness or badness of the actions revealed in the work. Interpretation is the revenge of moralism upon art, and that is what makes it so politically dangerous: It narrows what literary critics do — and opens them to attack and co-optation from all the ideologues out there. In the 1980s and 90s, scholars like Terry Eagleton blasted away against the idea that the arts were autonomous, no longeras Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley had declaredto be encountered on their own terms.

But once you've reduced art to politics and virtue, you either toe the party line or face the consequences. Eagleton may call himself a man of the left, but today's ethos is conservative, and I fear that much of today's literary criticism is as well: Behind the disenchantment that many literature professors now claim with the European intellectuals who once obsessed them lies a new and insidious intellectual isolationalism. Their underlying message is: Let American critics do their own kind of criticism. Remind you of the attitude of some of our top politicians?

Literary theory — as promoted by writers like de Man, Derrida, Johnson, and Shoshana Felman decades agohad been an effort to devise new defenses for literature, by updating and developing the idea that the arts proceed in their own ways, different from those of society, politics, and the economy. The fact that those theorists have been so eclipsed by the meaning-mongers has been much heralded as a return to clarity and common sense in literary criticism. But seen from my vantage point, what we have lost is the opportunity for free aesthetic response. I don't think many of today's literary critics are even aware of what they have done, or of the consequences. That makes it, perhaps, more rather than less worrisome.

I have told you all this about Fish and Weaver because, unless you understand the swing right in literature departments, disguised as the latest fashion, you cannot understand the significance of the two books I'll now turn to in more detail. Between them they offer the field of opportunities open to us. One is an effort to enforce the politics of interpretation by insisting that ideas prevail over poetic form; the other is an effort to break out of the prison house of meaning altogether.

Michaels's The Shape of the Signifier sounds vaguely poststructuralist. Signifiers and signifieds swept into literary studies with Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan. Much of the literary criticism influenced by those theorists tended to be rooted in the left, aimed at breaking up the culture of capitalism. It is the goal of Michaels to sweep that away, but under a title that confuses the reader with its ideological disguise.

He gloats that he intends to dismantle any remnants of the theoretical framework of yesteryear to make way for a newer scholarship that gives pride of place not to affect, identity, experience, and materiality, but to intention and meaning. He claims to be giving us one true theory, after having proved that theory is worthless. Beware what lies beneath those maddeningly confusing claims. One of Michaels's main targets is de Man, a thinker he finds to be the source of a great deal of what is going wrong in literary departments. He objects to de Man's emphasis on the way literature strikes us first as a shape whose tactile and gestural aspects are more important as triggers of experience than are the ideas they convey. Doing for American literature what Fish did for English, Michaels is Fish's lieutenant (in his first job at the Johns Hopkins University, he worked with Fish, who subsequently brought him to Illinois) in the battle to make antitheoretical pseudotheory dominate Ph.D. programs in literature.

His book is not scholarship, criticism, or theory. It is a brazen call for a return to ideology. For Weaver, the fall from grace came when the South lost the Civil War; for Michaels, it was when the Berlin Wall came down. The end of the cold war was the end of a straightforward ideology pitting the United States against the Soviet Union. In its place came endless questions about identity and the messy fray of identity politics. What is terrible about the posthistorical world, as Michaels sees it, is the fragmentation caused by identity politics; what follows from identity politics is that group identification tends to trump ideology, rendering all sorts of vague feelings of identification more important than articulating ideas. What matters is who you are, not what you think.

The remedy, for Michaels, is to understand the workings of class and, especially, the free market. In an article in The New York Times last year, he decries "Diversity's False Solace," arguing that making all cultures worthy of respect provides the false sense of "a world of differences without inequality." In a recent essay in n+1 magazine, "The Neoliberal Imagination," he further argues that elite colleges manage to avoid the real debate about class by patting themselves on the back for admitting some poor people. There's a lot of ideological self-disguise going on there, but to me the goal (and certainly the effect) seems to be to demoralize the liberal imagination by pointing out its foolish inconsistencies and pieties.

To make literary criticism straightforward, Michaels focuses on the market system, not the individual's experience of art. That, unfortunately, rules out aesthetic response. This is stuff that looks for an impersonal, dominating idea to impose order. Thus Michaels is critical of Toni Morrison, who, he says, reduces understanding her characters' lives to their racial identity. And he sees Samuel R. Delany's novella The Game of Time and Pain — one of a series of allegorical fantasies that explore sexuality and power through the tale of a long-ago people — not as centrally concerned with gay experience, but with how the idea of slavery is transformed into an allegorical case for the free market as two men willingly engage in a sadomaso-chistic relationship once rooted in the dominance of master over slave. The sad part, writes Michaels, is that Delany does not recognize that his story is proof of "the fundamental freedom of liberal capitalism — freedom of contract."

Michaels also repeats the simple little example that has been his main claim to fame ever since he published his 1982 essay with Steven Knapp, "Against Theory." What ought we to think if we see on a sand dune a fragment of a poem etched by waves? Should we respond to it as a poem? Not if it was caused by an accidental movement of waves, said Michaels and Knapp, even if the lines are as affecting as some of the best of Wordsworth. The shapes in the sand were not created by human intention; they had no ideas behind them. Therefore they are not signifiers.

That kind of move rules out of court the most important task of a critic, which is to discern artistic forms and make judgments about them as things of beauty or ugliness. Michaels rejects the teasing out of the ambiguities of that sensory experience, which is what the deconstructionists of old delighted in. If it all sounds like an abstract discussion of ideas, it is.

Gumbrecht's Production of Presence sees things differently. The German-born author established himself as a literary historian of the Iberian peninsula, working primarily in medieval literature. He is now a U.S. citizen and a professor of literature at Stanford University (and is also affiliated with the University of Montreal and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris) — just the sort of immigrant who has long enriched American literary scholarship.

He is as aggressively opposed to hermeneutics as Michaels is to poetics and aesthetics, and he declares an interest in the material aspects of artwork that starkly contrasts with Michaels's rejection. Gumbrecht does not deny that we can find meaning in art, but he argues that the production of meaning takes precedence over an obsession with interpreting it. Our emotional response to artworks matters. We experience a thrill when we see that meanings can be produced, when we see how malleable symbols are. We do not respond to static images of God the Father or Satan in Milton, but to the manifest malleability of the poetry. Milton makes us feel that we have entered his workshop and can feel the heat of his creative powers. That is what warms us, not the cold idea that good should conquer evil. The emphasis Gumbrecht puts on production is striking at a time when American business has turned its attention from how goods are produced to how, as they say, value is added in the process of selling things. The focus on production seems old-fashioned, more in tune with the values of engineers (and artists) than those of marketers.

Gumbrecht seeks to shift literary criticism away from interpretation to what he calls a "nonhermeneutic field," by which he means to highlight the continuing value of Derrida's subtle explorations of the way forms of content emerge. Like Michaels, he wants to go beyond the material surface of an artwork. While for Michaels that means that interpretation is the name of the game, however, for Gumbrecht we can never detach ideas about a literary work from the work itself. We cannot discard a poem. The key is to think about how we experience it.

We cannot help feeling when we read Whitman's Leaves of Grass, for example, that we are being inundated by words, as the poet piles clause after clause after clause upon us. We have to grapple with finding order (not to mention a verb) — to assert some kind of control. That kind of experience embodies the experience of the new democratic order that Whitman was celebrating, gives us a sense, not an idea, of that order.

It is no mere coincidence, Gumbrecht writes, that at the time aesthetics was emerging as a discipline within philosophy, artists began to depict how the physical way we experience the world matters. Painters like Goya and writers like Rousseau gave viewers a visceral sense of the topsy-turvy turmoil of aesthetics.

Gumbrecht further argues that one source of the problems that plague scholarship today is the way interpretation has been institutionalized. Giving interpretation control over literary scholarship was a price that we paid to win a place for literature in the university. The question now is, How can we change the situation?

For Gumbrecht, the key is to avoid extremist tactics and pitting one approach against another — something that humanists do when they are feeling down and out and oppressed, as they have more and more in the past 30 years. He wants critics like Michaels to stop seeing literary theorists like de Man as Satan incarnate. And he wants those who are, as it were, on de Man's side to stop clinging to him inflexibly, as if the critic were going to descend from his throne next to God's in heaven and come back to New Haven.

In fact, you should know, a growing and diverse group of scholars is producing very exciting work, exploring just the issue of aesthetic experience urged upon the reader by Gumbrecht. Such people are not the dupes of de Man, and many of them probably have never heard of Gumbrecht. Look to Isobel Armstrong's The Radical Aesthetic (Blackwell, 2000), which soundly criticizes those who claim that aesthetics is politically reactionary. Drawing on contemporary literature and criticism, the book instead points to the democratic potential of a revival of aesthetics. Brian Massumi's Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Duke University Press, 2002) argues that contemporary media like television, film, and the Internet evoke various levels of sensation — some of which operate well below the level of simple meaning; Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2004) uses examples that range from 19th-century American novels to contemporary cartoon shows to study the fleeting feelings we often have about art. In different ways, all those scholars resist reducing art to ideas; all reveal anew the complex ways in which art holds us in its grasp.

Yes, the transformation that Gumbrecht calls for in the humanities is beginning to happen. If we can let go of our past battles, we may even let it flower.

(Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. His most recent book is Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship.)


Post a Comment

<< Home