Anyway, what’s kind of interesting about this new site is that it seems to be sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, which was devised as a kind of anti-MLA devoted to ridding lit departments of their classracegenderism and deconstructive tendencies. The mottos and manifestos on the website demonstrate the same Frank Luntz-ish spin that you’d find on the sites of, say, the such organizations as the Independent Women’s Forum…
Cultural Revolution then goes on to attack the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics for using such retrograde notions as “imagination,” “shared literary culture,” “serious,” and “classicists and modernists” in its statement of purpose, and to note how it received its initial start-up money from the conservative Bradley Foundation. So far, so pedestrian. What’s interesting about the post is not what it says, but what it assumes: that an interest in literature for literature’s sake is innately conservative. And, by extension, the question it doesn’t ask: why is it that an organization which is interested in studying literature and imagination is perceived as a conservative bulwark, and has no choice but to go to conservatives for funding and support?
First, it’s by no means obvious that post-structuralist literary theory and its cousins are, in any real sense of the word, radical. Indeed, you could make a very strong case (Russell Jacoby is very good on this) that they’re substitutes for radicalism, and piss-poor ones at that. Modern literary theorists are no match for the left-wing public intellectuals of a previous era; as Jacoby unkindly notes, their work is “largely technical, unreadable, and unread.” There are some exceptions – Edward Said for one – but for the most part, even the most prominent literary theorists have no political impact worth talking about. Modern literary theory not only doesn’t add up to a political project in itself; it doesn’t make any real contribution to politics. It has become a self-referential, self-defeating dialogue.
Second is the extraordinarily pervasive notion that there’s something inherently conservative about liking and valuing books for their own sake, rather than as grist for the mill of deconstructionism. I suspect that something like this is at the basis of Cultural Revolution’s suspicion of the Valve, and of ‘classicism,’ ‘imagination,’ etc. And it’s bullshit – there’s no reason why one can’t appreciate and enjoy cultural forms for their own sake, even when their origins and their place in the canon are politically suspect. My favourite example of this is C.L.R. James’ work on cricket. James is the canonical left-wing intellectual, and unlike most left-wing intellectuals (myself included), someone who got his hands dirty with the tough, difficult work of political organizing. But he was also a fan of the game of cricket. It’s hard to imagine a more politically loaded sport – in terms of both class (the distinction between ‘players’ and ‘gentlemen’) and colonialism. Yet James, while appreciating cricket’s political aspects, took an unalloyed delight in the game itself, and was able to communicate his enthusiasm to his readers. It’s rather odd that enthusiasm of this sort (and of the sort that the Valve is interested in promoting) is treated as politically suspicious. It’s even more peculiar that Cultural Revolution has problems with ‘imagination’ (damn hard to imagine any leftist project worth pursuing that doesn’t have some imagination at its heart), and with classicism. Walter Benjamin, and even Jacques Derrida wouldn’t have been who they were without a classical training.
The hostility of many literary theorists to the notion that they ought connect with a wider culture, or that they are, in the end of the day, critics of cultural forms that have a value in themselves apart from the tropes that their methodologies can uncover, seems to me to be connected to the deeper malaise that Scott McLemee talks about in his article on Saul Bellow last week; it’s worth quoting at length.
That the caricature so closely matches the features of the profession is, in some ways, an unfortunate thing. It keeps all parties involved from seeing just how bored and unhappy almost everyone involved really is. You see it at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, where the rare moments of excitement seem to come from the effort to pass resolutions on political matters. (This is a process offering all the thrill and efficacy of a really heated student council meeting.)
It is an anxious kind of low-grade misery. Much of the anxiety is economic. Perhaps all of it is — if only in the sense that economic realities leave their mark on every level of literary study, including what people decided to make a priority in their research and writing. The constant (and to that degree unreflective) emphasis on the “professionalization” of young scholars barely out of adolescence does not exactly place great emphasis on literature as a force for spiritual bildung — not that you would find many people willing to use such terms in the first place.
This seems to me exactly right. An “anxious kind of low-grade misery,” which is connected directly to the conditions of production in the academy. If you don’t produce work which fits a certain set of professional criteria, you aren’t going to get tenure. However, these criteria have perverse consequences. You spend your life studying work which you aren’t supposed to enjoy on its own terms; too high a degree of enthusiasm is anathema, unless it’s couched in political or critical terms that disconnect the value of the text from the text itself (A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” is good on this – the couple who are so trapped by the language of “phallocracy and penisneid, punctuation, puncturing and penetration, … polymorphous and polysemous perversity,” that they have difficulty in recognizing or expressing the thing itself, when they begin to fall in love with each other.) You aspire to a certain vision of literary studies as politics – but are aware (have to be aware) that your profession is almost entirely disconnected from politics as it is practiced in everyday life. You simply don’t have much to say that’s politically useful. It’s a particularly unpleasant version of Weber’s “iron cage.”
This is not to say that ventures like the Valve have to be, or should be, political, or to take a left-wing stance. It is to say that there’s nothing incompatible between a desire to appreciate cultural forms for themselves, to engage directly with the existing culture, and leftwing politics. And further, there’s a strong argument to be made (again, Jacoby has already made it), that the study of literature and culture, as it exists in the academy today, is conservative in practice – it channels the energies and attentions of a large number of very intelligent people in politically sterile directions. They’re trapped in their iron casings; no good way to get out. Thus, while efforts to rebuild the connection between literary theory and the wider culture aren’t necessary political in themselves, they are a necessary first step towards politics. If leftwingers within literary studies had any sense they’d be applauding the Valve, and trying to emulate it, not sniping from the wings.