Radical Literary Theorists

by Henry on April 11, 2005

An interesting counterblast to The Valve, which our co-blogger John Holbo helped set up, from Cultural Revolution.


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.

{ 129 comments }

1

drapeto 04.11.05 at 12:37 pm

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?

No choice? Perhaps the question isn’t asked because it is disingenuous.

If leftwingers within literary studies had any sense they’d be applauding the Valve, and trying to emulate it, not sniping from the wings.

So if left-wingers had any sense, they’d try to get funded by the right too. OK.

When I reflect that CT is actually one of the better white left blogs, my cynicism rockets, and the CLR James pimping doesn’t help.

2

Russell Arben Fox 04.11.05 at 12:41 pm

“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…”

To give this a slightly more topical spin: I think this is why you not infrequently find many truly serious leftists, people deeply committed to progressive social and moral ideals, making temporary alliances with conservatives, for which they are excoriated by mainstream liberals, of course. Yes, perhaps some of these leftists are patsies; and perhaps allowing oneself to believe in “cultural forms that have a value in themselves” will suddenly and mysteriously turn you into Roger Kimball. But I doubt it. More likely, they’re looking for people who still take certain principles and certain works to be inherently “good” (even if they disagree on what that goodness consists of) and thus worth fighting for, rather than those who think the process or methodology of choice or construction, rather than its telos, is all.

3

Henry 04.11.05 at 12:42 pm

Drapeto, if you’ve got a point to make, make it (in a couple of years of reading your occasional comemnts on this blog, I don’t recall you once making an actual argument, let alone putting forward your own alternative program. Am I wrong?

4

Steve LaBonne 04.11.05 at 12:52 pm

Curiously, a similarly dysfunctional phenomenon occurs in discussions of K-12 education where, for example, objections to things like the awful NCTM-endorsed “fuzzy math” curricula are too often pigeonholed as “conservative”.

5

GZombie 04.11.05 at 12:55 pm

Could you provide us with specific examples of “[t]he 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”?

A related question: Given that CT so often has posts on literary matters, why are there no CT contributors who actually work in departments of literature?

6

Colin Danby 04.11.05 at 2:08 pm

“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.”

Um, where does the CR post assume this? Apparently the best Henry can do by way of argument is “I suspect…” which is *itself* bullshit — anyone can suspect anything.

CR’s argument is apparently that certain terms are deliberately being set against certain other terms, and that these oppositions are being aligned politically. This analysis might be mistaken, but it’s a coherent analysis of someone’s rhetoric and it does *not* proceed from the assumption that Henry tendentiously imputes.

And OBVIOUSLY one can appreciate lit or cricket in a variety of ways and OBVIOUSLY there is no direct connection between particular modes of criticism and politics. Why do we need windy lectures about things everyone knows?

7

roger 04.11.05 at 2:44 pm

Henry makes a standard claim: “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.”

I suppose it is a subjective judgment that Empson or Eliot or Richards or Tate is more readable than Barthes or Foucault or Deleuze or Blanchot. What isn’t subjective is that Foucault, Barthes and Deleuze and Guattari have all been best sellers in France; nor is it subjective that Foucault had a very strong influence in France with regards to laws concerning sexuality in the seventies; or that the connection between feminist literary theory and wider feminist political movements have been much more successful than, say, the connection between new criticism and the Southern agrarian movement, or the Anglo-Catholic movement.

Statements about unreadability are conveyed by those who happen not to have read the works in question. How convenient. How self-exculpatory. On the evidence of the enormous interest of this blog in popular sci fi and the lack of interest in contemporary literary fiction, not to speak of poety, I’m pretty sure the time ‘saved’ by not reading Barthes has not been invested in reading Homer.

Matthew Arnold, nobody’s idea of a radical, had a word for this kind of thing: philistinism.

8

lemuel pitkin 04.11.05 at 3:31 pm

I didn’t understand Henry to be talking about Foucault et al., but about their American exponents — who, you will have to admit, ahve mostly not been best-sellers.

9

T.S. Morans 04.11.05 at 3:37 pm

Well, what about the relationship to the Bradley Foundation? The links Cultural Revolution provides bolsters its argument. There’s nothing here but some tut-tuting about how an affinity for certain thinkers does not make one a radical.

On the evidence of the enormous interest of this blog in popular sci fi and the lack of interest in contemporary literary fiction, not to speak of poety, I’m pretty sure the time ‘saved’ by not reading Barthes has not been invested in reading Homer.

Heh. Indeed.

10

Henry 04.11.05 at 3:40 pm

roger, your quite extraordinary pomposity looks to me to be a pretty standard evasive tactic. It’s very easy to assume away serious criticism by claiming that your critics are quasi-literate ‘philistines’ who prefer ‘popular sci-fi’ to whatever your idiosyncratic definition of ‘contemporary literary fiction’ is. Unfortunately, both I (and many of the others who are making this complaint) have read the people who we’re complaining about. It would be undignified for me to try to justify my personal library; I will say in passing that your nice disdain for genre fiction wasn’t shared by, say, Beckett or Joyce, and isn’t shared by many of the most prominent writers of literary fiction today – DeLillo, Lethem, Oates, Lessing, Chabon off the top of my head (not even to get into Barthes). You can’t duck the question that easily. Russell Jacoby isn’t a philistine by any standard; nor is Scott McLemee (who has incidentally written a highly nuanced appreciation of Derrida). It’s also quite telling that you have to reach to France to provide evidence of literary theorists acting as public intellectuals. Finally, the spectacle of a commentator who defends himself against impertinent critics by appealing to ‘literary fiction,’ while simultaneously invoking those literary critics who are supposed to be breaking down and interrogating the fundamental social distinctions on which the construction of “literary fiction” is based, reminds one of nothing more than those Surrealist machines that were supposed to obliterate themselves in a frenzy of smoke and deconstruction.

gzombie – right back atcha. Why is it that you aren’t creating a competitor blog to us? That is, a collective of lit-theory friendly types who will explain to us exactly why it is that I, John Holbo, Scott McL, Brian Weatherson and others are missing out on something vital by dismissing academic criticism? I’m deliberately framing this post in a tendentious way to provoke a response. If you have good counter-arguments – that is reasons why criticism is politically vital – let’s have them. Or even better, create a group blog or similar endeavour that can demonstrate by example what academic criticism would look like as it connects to a wider audience.

Colin – nope. The Cultural Revolution piece doesn’t present any analysis whatsoever – instead, it describes an opposition and assumes that this opposition is in some undefined way Frank Luntz-ish, or smacking of the Independent Women’s Forum. It doesn’t analyze – it assumes that any manifesto which has these qualities (which is interested in ‘imagination’ etc) is innately conservative. It doesn’t argue, it states.

11

Anderson 04.11.05 at 3:46 pm

If I recall correctly, the ALSC hasn’t helped itself by associating its stance towards literature with right-wing politics.

Nevertheless, I sympathize with them. Back when I was going to be an English professor, I was deeply interested in theory, but very suspicious of theory’s tendency to replace the literary work rather than illuminating it. My paradigmatic example is the seminar in which one’s assigned to read the primary texts, comes to class, and then listens to 2 hours of discussion of anything *but* the text.

Similarly, too much MLA-style writing (you know what I mean) takes the literary work as a springboard for an essay into sociology or politics or whatnot. These may be interesting in themselves, depending on the brains of the author, but they often don’t really relate to the literary work, which is a mere “pretext” (ha).

Besides, if one’s going to do sociology or psychology or poli sci, why not do it in one of those departments & be trained by people versed in the subject, rather than be a dilettante in the English department?

All very mysterious, at least to this ex-English grad student, who abandoned the program in the face of a projected dissertation on the theory of liteary theory, which probably would have led to my disappearance into a singularity (like the end of the “Space Madness” episode of Ren & Stimpy).

12

Doug 04.11.05 at 4:03 pm

I like what the valve is up to, and I hope that they succeed, wherever the money comes from. Writing about books for books’ sake — apart from the PR machinery of most major places of publication for book reviews, and apart from the machinery of the academy — deserves success. I also think that the blog form allows writing at a range of lengths (epigrammatic to Holbovian) more readily than other forms of publication, and this is also to the good.

13

Rich Puchalsky 04.11.05 at 4:26 pm

henry writes: “Why is it that you aren’t creating a competitor blog to us?”

Actually, if you poke around Cultural Revolution briefly, you’ll see that its writer did propose this very idea, with the happy thought of calling it “Crookeder Timber”. It promptly received all the enthusiasm that one might expect.

14

Henry 04.11.05 at 4:57 pm

Well I’d be all on to see this happening – not sure about the name (best to find their own identity)- but I do think that there is a gap in the market there and (my critical comments about this post notwithstanding)Cultural Revolution would be, I imagine, a good nucleus for it – it’s a fine blog.

15

Forumposter 04.11.05 at 5:10 pm

t has become a self-referential, self-defeating dialogue.”

Well, only if you define “successful” literary criticism in terms of what it does outside the field or outside the academy. I’m sorry, but people’s work does have value within a particular field as long as it makes a contribution to the body of knowledge. Feminist criticism of historical literature, for instance, has taught us much about the construction of gender. Sure, it doesn’t necessarily change how people working at Walmart understand gender, or help them understand that unions aren’t evil, but honestly, how do most peoples’ jobs end up doing that kind of cultural work? That’s a pretty high standard for victorious employment that few people have to set for themselves. Many academics understand their work as progressively minded endeavors, but they do other non-wor related activism that’s meaningful and I dare say, helpful to some

16

roger 04.11.05 at 5:20 pm

Henry, I do try to oblige in the pomposity department. Thanks. As for the “unreadable” critics who are –still — unnamed – well, I now understand that you are withholding their names out of some principle of charity, lest I be overwhelmed by the evidence for your argument. Its so kind of you to omit any evidence whatsoever. It does make it simpler to have an opinion that way.

As for literary and genre fictions — these are, I think, marketing terms. As such, they reflect a real sociological difference — one that is reflected in what is and is not reviewed, etc. I didn’t make up the difference, and the pretense that it isn’t there because Joyce read Paul de Kock is, to my mind, a pretty silly ploy. Now you might argue, from — say — a deconstructive point of view that the differences subvert themselves. But it misses the point of the way Joyce used Paul de Kock to think that Joyce didn’t see the difference between him and, yes, literary fiction. Subvert the difference and you subvert the subversive moment.

Now, I do not quite understand how I am I am evading the issue by actually naming critics and commenting on what I think their political and cultural successes were. Such a fox, this Roger — instead of making generalizations that name no one, and indicate no real social or historical patterns, like a real macho, he goes the evasive route and does the compare and contrast thing with actual critics who have actually existed and actually felt that their criticism was intrinsically part of a cultural politics.

As for the idea of “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,” well, it is hard to find any good critic in the past — from Samuel Johnson to Eliot to Poulet — who did not use a political bias to judge books. The idea about “liking and valuing books for their own sake” sounds friendly and un-pompous, rather like Charlotte Haze’s taste in the reproductions of the great masters.

But it ain’t good criticism.

17

Jonathan 04.11.05 at 5:26 pm

Is dismissing academic criticism all you’re doing? Hell. Set your sights higher.

18

Colin Danby 04.11.05 at 5:33 pm

No, Henry, *read* what the CR post writes after the second quoted extract. I’ll quote:

“Strange slippage from the diversity of the student body to the “gloomy state of literary studies,” blurring the widening of the canon into the chromatic scale of the student body, and the demand to darken it. Nice to see this from a group ostensibly out to drain the politics out of English departments…”

It’s not a long analysis, it may be a wrong analysis, but it *is* an analysis of a text, so you’re flat wrong in saying “no analysis whatsoever.”

And have you now backed off your unfounded imputation that CR’s position rests on believing “that there’s something inherently conservative about liking and valuing books for their own sake”?

19

seth edenbaum 04.11.05 at 6:11 pm

I’m sorry but the thought of any post or blog on CT about literature or art just makes me laugh.
I’ve explained why this is so enough times, but now your defense of ‘literature as literature’ pisses me off. Why not defend literature as philosophy, as the manifestion of an ethic of curiosity, opposed to programmatics? Why not defend narrative, the narrative as a counterforce to technics and instrumental reason?

The pleasure and danger of a literary imagination is that someone may believe your words are true. Any good author writes bullshit hoping to be believed and not: hoping to be perceived as walking a line, with style. Where is there a defense, any defense at all on Crooked Timber, of the illogic of dreaming while awake, of the necessity of it in the life of any mature adult.

We live life slighly drunk. Some say not drunk enough, while others say they’re always sober. Still others defend the notion while constantly striving to prove by their analysis of drunkeness that they are dry as a bone.

Got me?

20

Amardeep 04.11.05 at 6:43 pm

I think the value of The Valve will be proved or not proved by what it turns into, not so much what’s paying for its web-hosting. If you look at what we’ve been doing so far, what seems different about it is this: people are debating aspects of literature without starting with the “this author is ideologically suspect, but I still think it might be interesting” move that is a kind of deadening shibboleth for most, if not all, professionally sanctioned conversations about literature.

It’s refreshing, and kind of a relief, actually, to have a conversation about whether Saul Bellow is all that great after all, without having to spend several thousands words worrying over the racism in some of his novels (or his infamous snark about the “Zulu Tolstoy”). Same goes for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitic “Wolfsheim” in “The Great Gatsby.” Unsavory business needs to be acknowledged (in the conversation on Bellow on The Valve, it has been), but why not spend some of our time and energy talking about the best ideas and the best writing these folks produced? Fitzgerald’s neoplatonism seems to me more interesting than his use of the shady Mr. Wolfsheim.

So that’s how I would prefer to frame the debate. It’s not about the Bradley Foundation, and it’s not even primarily about the Theory Wars. It’s about continually trying to find ways to think and discuss what we read openly (non-shibbolethically if you will).

21

s.e. 04.11.05 at 7:05 pm

Part of me feels -or wants to feel- apologetic for my tone above; but the rest of me screams.

I don’t read right-wing blogs, let alone make comments. That’s the best I can do

22

Jonathan 04.11.05 at 7:18 pm

I scored a perfect left-libertarian ten on that silly compass thing going around a while back, and I post there.

23

Gabe 04.11.05 at 7:36 pm

{Yawn}…surely there’s a difference between the PC police and Derrida. {head thunking on table for wasting time on CT}

24

pedro 04.11.05 at 8:12 pm

“…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.”

There is nothing inherently conservative about liking and valuing books for their own sake, and I doubt any serious literary scholar would argue such a thing. What is inherently conservative is to pretend that liking and valuing books for their own sake is the sort of supposedly serious intellectual work that English scholars *ought* to do. In fact, I don’t know of any serious field of knowledge in which the purpose of inquiry is to recite the virtues of the cultural output of individuals, and I don’t understand how people with considerable sociological sophistication can so easily defend the idea that the study of literature can be fruitfully carried out in vitro, without reference to discourses of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Besides, what sort of intellectual exercise is the valoration of aesthetic virtue, especially when it is done in a vacuum? [This is not to say that there aren’t other ways of analyzing literature: ways that ought to be explored and fostered.]

Between having English scholars seriously tackle problems of cultural production and the dynamics of culture, and having them engage in the tired, repetitive adulation of Shakespeare, I prefer the former, by a lot. True it is that “Theory” is fraught with immense problems, and John Holbo often does a good job of exposing them, but at least literary scholars are at last eschewing the facile, silly, unsophisticated perspective, according to which literature is literature is literature. Literary “scholars” who think this way perhaps ought to be adviced to work at the Department of Education, developing ‘the canon’, or at the Chicago Sun-Times, side by side with Roger Ebert.

25

pedro 04.11.05 at 8:30 pm

I love El Quijote, and I love The Canterbury Tales. (Not a Shakespeare junkie, nope.) When it comes to aesthetic, personal judgments, I find preoccupations about gender, sexuality, race, etc., to be a bit out of place, i.e. I don’t need critics to tell me why I shouldn’t *like* or *value* these books. Nor do I need high-brow critics to tell me why I should *like* or *value* Saul Bellow. Conversations about whether Bellow is better than Atwood, etc., surely belong in amateur book clubs–and I’ll happily join in the conversation. But in serious academic institutions, to be arguing that Bellow is truly great or ‘not really’? No. I value preoccupations about what literature says about culture, about how it represents, fashions, and informs culture, about how it serves, in some sense, as an archeological repository of cultural History. And in this context, to talk about how race gets represented in El Quijote or in Canterbury Tales seems interseting to me, and it in no way diminishes my appreciation for the texts.

Forgive me if I’m incredibly suspicious of claims of cultural universality, and of the possibility of answering the question “What is good art?”.

26

lemuel pitkin 04.11.05 at 9:32 pm

My sympathies are basically with the Crooked timber side here, BUT:

- Let’s be honest: ALSC is unambiguously a right-wing organization — it’s funded by Scaife, Olin, etc. — with an expliitly poltiical mission. Their goal is to discredit people doing literary theory and instituions that support it, especially the MLA. Does anyone seriously dispute this?

- Who you take money from does matter. To insist that your work is totally independent of your funding is either naive or disingenuous. Come on.

So I have to conclude that, whatever the merits of CR’s particular criticisms, Valve is kind of asking for it.

27

Jonathan 04.11.05 at 9:59 pm

Lem,

I have posted and will post about literary theory there, not intentionally discrediting. I’m also the MLA’s biggest internet supporter. Sort of.

28

Cultural Revolution 04.11.05 at 10:04 pm

I’m really way too wrapped up in paper grading (takes a lot of energy to fail everyone who attends to the literary superstructure rather than the socio-economic base) and a dissertation due to the printers this week to get very wrapped up in this, but I’m glad to see that my post has prompted some discussion…

Anyway, a few quick points:

I certainly am not attacking literature or literary study. I study literature for a living, have signed my life over to it.

The ALSC’s use of the words “Imagination,” “shared literary culture,” “serious,” and “classicists and modernists” is what I’m talking about when I call this rhetoric Luntzian. When they say “imagination,” they mean “not critique.” When they say “shared literary culture,” they mean “not non-canonical – i.e. black, female, gay, etc… When they say “serious,” they mean “not bat-eyed crazy, like that gal Judy Butler.” And when they say “classicists and modernists,” they mean to take us back to the intellectual politics of pre-Enlightenment scholasticism…

In other words, I don’t, as you say I do, have any problems with “imagination” – just the oppositional, euphemistic deployment of the word by the likes of the ALSC.

Henry claims that the assumption behind me piece is “that an interest in literature for literature’s sake is innately conservative.” Not at all. The assumption behind my piece is that the polemical demand that the academic study of literature abandon its wider interests and affiliations is a strong marker of conservative reaction. I saw the Valve as an indirect instantiation of this polemical demand… Especially given the ALSC trademark on its upper parts, which has a history of just this sort of thing.

Listen – I would be the last one in the world to discourage “an interest in literature for literature’s sake.” It’s certain, to my mind, a better thing to be interested in than, say, stock car racing or yachting. The trouble is – just as academic political science generally isn’t much interested in the “appreciation” of politics and political figures, and just as academic philosophy doesn’t spill much ink, I assume, in “appreciation” of big thoughts and big thinkers, neither do we in English departments really want to be penned into the “appreciation” business ourselves. Why? It just doesn’t make for very interesting or significant work. Analysis, critical, contextualization, the drawing out of contemporary ramifications… Like the members of any other department, we’d like to

If, say, political science departments followed the orders your giving English departments, they’d turn into dystopian versions of high school Civics classes, imbuing their students with a healthy and uncritical “appreciation” of US representative democracy, the heroic deeds of our great leaders, and the infallible reason behind our foreign policy successes…

“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.”

So true. I myself just appreciated and enjoyed an episode of 24, which is so deeply politically suspect that it makes my head spin. If I had a Nielsen box, I wouldn’t watch it.

But are you going to tell me that the proper place of the “department of television studies,” where there is such a thing, is simply teaching students to appreciate such shows? Isn’t it just a bit more interesting, a bit more valuable, to take its form, its style, the technical details, and speak to their relationship to the wider socio-cultural context from which they arise – and, perhaps, from which our enjoyment of them arises.

“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.”

Honestly, if this is what was going on here, then I’d have nothing more to say. If it was a truly question of a left critique of theory, then it’d be a whole different ballgame. But what I’m hearing isn’t the left critique of the left practice of literary studies…

Enough for now. Thanks, Henry, for picking up my post – and for the nice comments about my page.

29

seth edenbaum 04.11.05 at 10:15 pm

Damn! And it was all going so well
Pedro, you lost me in that last one sentence paragraph.

The best British painter was Holbein and the best British composer Handel. English is a literary culture with the other forms mostly ancillary. [And the popular music of the Afro/Anglo/Irish/American diaspora is a hybrid musical theater.] You may love Turner or Joshua Reynolds but it’s silly to place either next to Giotto either in invention or historical significance. You try telling anyone that the British 18th century was the grandest period of art and even specialists would roll their eyes. They may tell you that it’s their favorite period but that’s not the same thing.

It’s silly and useless to claim that everything can be put on a scale and that that scale will be the true one. But it’s just as absurd to say that one person can not be better than another at communicating. Is an idiot in Zurich smarter than a genius in Kalamazoo?

A work of art is an artificial whole, unified in form and idea through various culturally specific rhetorical devices. Rhetoric itself is universal.

Don’t fall into the trap of replacing one form of vulgarity with another.

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Cultural Revolution 04.11.05 at 10:30 pm

Amardeep,

Of course the value of the Valve will be proved by what goes on there. My point is this: if the affiliation with the ALSC is meant as an endorsement of their policies, I’m a bit worried what the site will turn into. On the other hand, if it’s simply a matter of “hey, they offered us cash no strings attached, and we’re taking it!” I guess I’d be taking a long look in the mirror to figure out what about me they loved so much to put the money on the table. Especially if I were an otherwise right-thinking left or center-left leaner.

In other words, if I was happily blogging my cultural and revolutionary thoughts at Cultural Revolution, and received a message from the Heritage Foundation offering some up-front money just because I’m their kind of guy, I guess I would be struck with such a savage case of self-doubt that I’d probably – no definitely – shut the whole endeavor down.

(Heritage, other right-wings groups: my operators are standing by…)

And, I hate to go down this route, but your comment is symptomatic of exactly the sort of slippage that worries me about this sort of endeavor. In the examples that you cite of issues that you’re itching to talk about – Bellow, Eliot, Fitzgerald – your focus even here isn’t on the “greatness,” the “best ideas,” but rather on getting free of the nay-sayers who bring up the racism, the anti-Semitism, etc… In other words, you keep acting as if you want to “appreciate” the works as works, but can’t stop talking about those off-stage others that want to ruin your fun.

In short, I hope that the Valve really does focus on the appreciation of literary art, rather than the denigration of other approaches to literature. So far, a mixed report card, I think…

(This is what I meant to bring out in my citation of the “keywords” from the ALSC document as well – they say they’re all about “imagination,” but the group is really focused on flushing the other stuff out of the system, not advancing “appreciations” of their own.)

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pedro 04.11.05 at 11:05 pm

What cultural revolution said.

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lemuel pitkin 04.12.05 at 12:21 am

I have posted and will post about literary theory there

“There” meaning Valve, right? Part of the confusion in this discussion, I think, stems from people not being clear if they’re referring — or more often, otehr people are referring — to Valve, which we all like, or to ALSC, which we mostly don’t.

Otherwise I’m pretty much with Cultural Revolution.

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john c. halasz 04.12.05 at 1:39 am

Lierature is a species of formal-rational discourse. A formal-rational discourse is “founded” upon the thematic abstraction of aspects of really embedded, practically oriented experience and interaction, and their recombination into a projective construction of an object domain, by which the data of experience are examined in “pre-established harmony” with respect to the formal construction. So what is the object domain of literature, in contrast to philosophy, science, law, historiography, etc.? It’s the modal-relational dimension of meaning-constitution that is suppressed by the referential claims of formal-rational discourses and instaneously disappears from the really embedded, practically oriented experience of the everyday life-world under the rigidifying pressure of need and necessity. In other words, literature, by supressing the immediate “force” of utterance, displacing rhetoric onto the circulating medium of texts, constitutes a play of modalizations, the “literariness” of literature, while mixing up with other modes of discourse. Literature is hence pre-eminently a public medium, even as it constructs the intimate-alienated realm of the private, and explores the experience of the real via counterfactual narrative and figuration. One of the prime functions of functionless literature is that it constitutes a kind of perpetual satire of the mutually incomprehending, mutually reifying relationship between formal-rational discourses and the everyday life-world that they would purport to regulate. As such, literature is neither philosophical, nor political, but rather mediates (the weaknesses of) both. As for science, literature is no rival, except that it expresses the plangency of what the former ignores.

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jholbo 04.12.05 at 3:19 am

Thanks, Henry, for the nice post. I’ve been independently working up a sort of ‘word about our sponsors’ post for the Valve, which will be up in a day or so. I haven’t done it yet mostly because I didn’t want to launch the Valve with a lot of navel-gazing about our nature and mission. Gotta have some posts about other things up for a while before you have a navel into which to gaze. Well, now we have some posts up. So I’ll write the thing. The punchline: the ALSC really isn’t a conservative outfit. It just isn’t. I’m not being defensive about it. It’s just a fact. Bradley gave money to folks who are, demographically, a bunch of grumpy Democrats. (Near as I can figure.) So ‘the ALSC is conservative’ is straightforwardly untrue, on most understandings of ‘conservative’ anyone is likely to be operating with. But I do understand what it is that causes folks to infer otherwise. I will try to straighten all this out.

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jholbo 04.12.05 at 3:20 am

And of course my inaugural post was one long navel-gaze. So what I mean is: having done that, I didn’t want to do a lot MORE. Not right away.

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Doug 04.12.05 at 4:36 am

(takes a lot of energy to fail everyone who attends to the literary superstructure rather than the socio-economic base)

This is a joke, right?

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Doug 04.12.05 at 5:07 am

Between having English scholars seriously tackle problems of cultural production and the dynamics of culture, and having them engage in the tired, repetitive adulation of Shakespeare, I prefer the former, by a lot.

False dichotomy, no? (Of the assumption that all writing on Shakespeare is tired, repetitive adulation, the less said the better.)

True it is that “Theory” is fraught with immense problems, and John Holbo often does a good job of exposing them,

Which we can hope to see more of at The Valve. Plus, it’s his opportunity to show what could be done differently. Put up or shut up, if you will.

but at least literary scholars are at last eschewing the facile, silly, unsophisticated perspective, according to which literature is literature is literature. Literary “scholars” who think this way perhaps ought to be adviced to work at the Department of Education, developing ‘the canon’, or at the Chicago Sun-Times, side by side with Roger Ebert.

Lotta name-calling there, without much content. (“Adviced?”) As I read it, The Valve is emphatically not just for academics. It is not just for people who can devote themselves full time to literature.

It’s also emphatically not aiming for the PR treadmill that is all that remains of book reviews in most publications, especially daily newspapers.

It’s about expanding possibilities, writing at variable lengths, encouraging conversation.

If it’s not “scholarly” enough for your tastes, don’t read it. Is that so hard?

38

lemuel pitkin 04.12.05 at 6:39 am

“Between having English scholars seriously tackle problems of cultural production and the dynamics of culture, and having them engage in the tired, repetitive adulation of Shakespeare, I prefer the former, by a lot.”
False dichotomy, no? (Of the assumption that all writing on Shakespeare is tired, repetitive adulation, the less said the better.)

Yes, but it’s the ALSC side that established this dichotomy.

That’s what’s so frustrating about this debate. Basically, you’ve got a group of people saying, “We need to get away from theory so we can value books for their own sake,” and then when anyone defends theory they’re accused of being against the valuing-books part.

So for example, as CR pointed out above, when Amardeep wants to talk about Bellows’ “greatness” it immediately becomes an exercise in not talking about raace. CR didn’t create that dichotomy; Amardeep did.

Finally, John Holbo says that ALCS is not really right-wing, even tho they’re funded by indubitably right-wing outfits. Someone is getting the wool pulled over their eyes then. And, sorry John, but until I see some evidence to the contrary, I think it’s probably not Bradley/Olin/Scaife, but you.

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GZombie 04.12.05 at 7:04 am

No trackbacks on CT anymore? My longish response here: http://ghw.wordherders.net/archives/003951.html

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mjones 04.12.05 at 7:07 am

Wow. Lot’s of fur flying here.

When I was asked by John to join the Valve, I hadn’t even heard of the ALSC, though I have been a member of the MLA, off and on. (I’m Canadian, eh?) I have to admit, red lights started flashing when I visited their website and read their mission statement — I’m with Cultural Revolution and gzombie on this one. And I’m a pretty unregenerate race/class/gender sorta gal, deeply suspicious of the idea of literature for literature’s sake. So why join the group? For the chance to have some good conversations, with interesting people, about reading and books. I am looking forward to John’s promised post. We’ll see how it goes.

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seth edenbaum 04.12.05 at 7:20 am

“Literature is a species of formal-rational discourse.”

By this I hope you mean it is in conflict with itself.

Literature is discourse as description rather than as logical analysis; description of the author as describer and of the world- the experinces of the subject- as described. That’s why honesty in literature is more important thatn truth. T.S. Eliot described himself- his subjective world- honestly. He was pretty good on literary structure, but as understanding of the world ‘itself’ he sucked (of course).

Godard the radical was vague about the Algerian war. Truffaut the moderate was angry. Literary leftists involve themselves in arcane topics and end up much less politically active than moderates. Moderates being moderates are intellectually lazy but move around at least in the world. Another dichotomy.

I’m with the leftists of course, but I also get on well with their janitors and cleaning ladies, who laugh at them. T.J.Clark is brilliant, and brilliantly perverse.

I have to go put on my tool belt now.
bye.

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seth edenbaum 04.12.05 at 7:25 am

Actually I think it’s a bit different in GB. But Clark moved to California didn’t he? So it’s American leftist academia. An old friend of my father called them Yummies. Young Upwardly Mobile Marxists

I’m late

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Henry 04.12.05 at 7:31 am

I’ll get back to Cultural Revolution on the main point (want to read John H.’s response first – and to make it quite clear, we haven’t discussed any of this – the post above was my initiative entirely). But I do want to lay to rest a fairly pervasive misreading of what I’m arguing for (cf. Pedro et al.). I’m not arguing for a literary-studies-as-great-book-appreciation-club model, and if you read my post carefully, I don’t see how I can reasonably be accused of being. The model which I specifically single out for praise is C.L.R. James’ work on cricket, which isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a non-political gush of enthusiasm – it manages to mix James’ clear love of the sport with a flinty-eyed assessment of where the sport came from, and what its politics are. That’s not what I’m seeing in the academic literary criticism that I’m reading. I don’t get a sense either of the book itself, or of the politics themselves being taken seriously – both become a sort of rhetorical game in which the object is to jump through the right hoops to get tenure. As said, I’ll reserve replying on the major points (while thanking Cultural Revolution for the response above) until John sets out his stall on this – but I honestly don’t see why a version of literary criticism which isn’t aimed at the academy, but is aimed at a wider audience, can’t be, and shouldn’t be, a more effective political move than continuing on the way that things are. There’s no reason that the kinds of work that say Guy Davenport, Frank Kermode, James Wood etc can’t be infused with a more particularly political sensibility. And there are recent and current examples from within the academy and without of people who can do this border-crossing – Edward Said, Susan Sontag, and, in a different way, Michael Berube. But they’re exceptions. I’ll point out that it isn’t just impertinent critics like me who are making this point – it’s people at the heart of the academic critical establishment. My very strong impression as an outsider is that there’s a very serious crisis in the field, and that nobody quite knows what to do. I think a lot of the self-confidence issues come down to the sense that academic literary criticism doesn’t feel it has either an audience outside the academy, or the degree of internal coherence that it would need to go it alone without an audience. What I’m suggesting, in a sense is that it start building one (and that this doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination require a non-critical flattering of the text – instead, it requires a critical engagement with the text, but of a sort that non-academic readers of the text, or the authors of the texts themselves, are going to respond to).

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GZombie 04.12.05 at 7:40 am

I’ll try again.

“I don’t get a sense either of the book itself, or of the politics themselves being taken seriously – both become a sort of rhetorical game in which the object is to jump through the right hoops to get tenure.”

Henry, what are you talking about? What are you reading that’s giving you this impression?

“it requires a critical engagement with the text, but of a sort that non-academic readers of the text, or the authors of the texts themselves, are going to respond to”

What is the antecedent of “it” in this sentence?

How concerned are political scientists that their scholarship be something that citizens and politicians are going to respond to?

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Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 7:41 am

“The punchline: the ALSC really isn’t a conservative outfit. It just isn’t. I’m not being defensive about it. It’s just a fact.”

I’m sorry John, but simply ardently asserting that the right-wing money flowing into the ALSC, and now into your site, doesn’t make it true.

It may be that some of us who actually work in English departments in the US – who have been taught by or worked with those on the ALSC – might have a slightly better idea of what they’re up to than you.

Other fundees of the Bradley Foundation: Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame – they gave him $ after the Manhattan Institute kicked him out!), The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, William Bennett. Oh, and Harry Bradley was a founding funder of the John Birch Society.

Here’s the thing, John. Not every single – or even most members of the ALSC – are politically conservative. This is surely true. But the leadership is – and the money is.

You keep acting as if it’s just an accident, or a rare stroke of enlightened disinterest on the part of these orgs, or that perhaps you’ve got them all fooled. But I think it’s you that’s been fooled…

My argument: “Look at the money!”
Your argument: “Don’t look at the money! It doesn’t matter!”

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Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 8:01 am

Sorry, I left out a few words in the second paragraph of my previous post:

“I’m sorry John, but simply ardently asserting that the right-wing money flowing into the ALSC, and now into your site, doesn’t matter doesn’t make it true.”

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pedro 04.12.05 at 9:02 am

Well, folks, I apologize. I didn’t mean to imply that Henry was arguing for one side of the caricaturesque dichotomy that I brought up. Furthermore, I wasn’t criticizing Valve, which I haven’t read much, nor was it my intention to endorse a criticism of Valve on the grounds of where they get their money. I read Holbo & Goodwin with pleasure, darnit.

I do endorse certain specific criticisms of the way in which race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and especially psychoanalysis, get used in lit. crit. I just have a strong distaste for the sort of insinuation that the right way to think about literature is to return to the business of ‘appreciation’, an insinuation that I shouldn’t have detected in Henry’s post, but which is there nonetheless in the larger discourse, with conservatives constantly complaining about the erosion of the canon, the inclusion of ‘minor figures’, etc. In this regard, I see myself in complete agreement with cultural revolution.

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Timothy Burke 04.12.05 at 9:05 am

One of the things I remember in the early protests against the Iraq War is that when it turned out ANSWER was sponsoring or paying for some of the rallies, many people on the left who don’t care for ANSWER said, “It doesn’t matter who paid for or organized the damn march, just look at who was in attendance and what was said! Engage the content of the rally: don’t have a theory of politics as contagion!” This in general is a pretty consistent response by many on the left to right-wing assertions of contagion of many kinds–I’m making one version of that very response to David Horowitz imminently over on his site.

Now on one hand it does matter in the case of ANSWER or the fnding of the ALSC–but not if one is planning to engage what was said at a rally or what was said on the Valve (or for that matter what is said by the ALSC about their mission). It matters as a question of operational politics. What ANSWER was doing by funding and organizing rallies, even when they ceded the right to the podium or controlling the message, was a kind of ideological version of money-laundering, an attempt to legitimate their organization through indirect association with many organizations and individuals who did not share their beliefs. Arguably that’s what some of the conservative funders of the ALSC are up to as well: buying their way into an association with a project whose purposes they thiink they recognize.

However. I think Henry is to some extent pursuing a red herring here by rehearsing the “appreciation and imagination VS. sterile critical theory” disagreement. Not to say some of that isn’t wrapped up in this: one of CR’s comments above makes a modest and careful defense of the literary-theory-as-too-difficult-to-be-left-to-amateurs line, and betrays a general anxiety about what is being asked for in an “appreciative” mode of criticism. (And I think in that comment misrepresents what “appreciation” might mean: it doesn’t mean gushing enthusiastically about Literature, necessarily.) Still, this is one debate, but it’s not the real thing that I think the CR post (and this discussion) is about.

Instead, I think it’s about this idea of politics as contagion, that you can read “real” intent of a new project by following the money back to its sources. It’s there that I think the real problems emerge. Part of the problem is the asymmetry involved in how we read the intentionality of monetary support. At elite US universities, many humanities departments are funded indirectly–and sometimes directly–by donations of wealthy alumni. Many of those alumni may be conservative to some degree or another. We do not read from their politics to the end state of their money, and rightfully so. But why not? Because we know academic institutions intimately, and so we know that there are few ways for the money to carry with it some intentionality that supercedes the academic institution itself.

But in his complaint about the Valve, CR invokes a different idea about money: that the intentionality of its sources inevitably captures or owns the project to which it flows–and the argument here is advanced very much in terms of contagion or conspiracy, as an associational pattern These institutions have funded X, Y and Z, ergo anything they fund must be in the same alphabet even when it is not evident on the surface that it is.

It’s two very different ways of understanding how funding creates power. In one case, we’re not terribly anxious in a specific way even when we may be generically anxious as left academics sometimes are about the overall placement of the academy within systems of financial and political power. In the other case, a very specific anxiety–and accusation. The specific anxiety vanishes in the former case because we intimately know the working sociology of the money, we know there’s a layered disconnect between the intentionalities of donors and the dispositions of funding. So my question to CR would be: why not assume the same here? There’s no visible sign in the Valve itself or in the careers, outlooks and disposition of the chief participants that their work there is “captured”. Absent a specific knowledge of an interior sociology in which the politics of the Bradley money maps onto the purchase of specific sentiments, or a hidden plan of conspiratorial intent on the part of the Valve participants themselves, why not assume that they are what they are? Why assume that the money which flows into the academic humanities is cleansed by its flow but that money from Bradley into ALSC and thence to the Valve remains forever dirty? Why not assume that the Valve, and perhaps the ALSC itself, is just being pragmatically clever about grabbing at proferred money and then doing its own thing? If the funders intend to enforce their own agenda, they’ll do it sooner or later, and that’s when I think you can make claims about the political meaning of money–not as contagion, not as inference, but at that moment when an organization actually perceptibly changes what it says and does in order to dance the jig it is being ordered to dance.

Otherwise what happens here (and this brings it back to Henry’s main point) is that the very assertion that critical theory is sterile and that the mode of literary criticism today should look something more like public-sphere practice of a generation or two ago becomes by definition contagious and suspicious, a “bought” sentiment, merely because the wrong kind of people (and the wrong kind of money) like such a sentiment. A drawing of boundaries, an assertion that some arguments are wrong because they appeal to the wrong people–which is a way to prevent ever having the argument in the first place. If Holbo, Singh and the other Valve contributors (or the ALSC) want to explore a new mode of writing about literature and culture and there are right-wing commissars who mistakingly perceive that mode as an endorsement of their own agenda and throw money at them, I don’t think that’s intrinsically a problem. Now if suddenly the Valve starts reading like Horowitz’s FrontPageMag, then go ahead and complain, but sufficient unto that day is the evil thereof.

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Henry 04.12.05 at 9:46 am

Hi pedro

Didn’t take your comment personally – but as I said, it did reflect a misunderstanding of what I was saying. Glad we’re both on the same page (or at least in a position where our continuing points of disagreement are clearer). Tim’s comment is a useful clarification, and says some of the things that I was trying to say rather better, and in a more nuanced way, than I did in my original post. To which I’d add (following Jacoby again) – an academic literary criticism that seeks to build, and talk to, a public sphere, seems to me to be much more obviously compatible with the basic left values that I share with most of the people with whom I disagree in this thread, than academic literary criticism as it exists today. Which brings us back to Tim’s point as I read it – funding or no funding, there’s no reason to believe that John’s project is inherently conservative, or that the ALSC agenda can’t be adopted (with changes) towards progressive ends. A more public sphere oriented criticism isn’t intrinsically right wing, regardless of who funds it. Funding becomes an issue when people start bending or corrupting their work in order to get more of it; given the people who are doing this, I don’t think that this is likely to be a problem in this instance.

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Henry 04.12.05 at 9:51 am

Oh, and I’d like to point to the key para in Tim’s post that says what I was trying to say.

Otherwise what happens here (and this brings it back to Henry’s main point) is that the very assertion that critical theory is sterile and that the mode of literary criticism today should look something more like public-sphere practice of a generation or two ago becomes by definition contagious and suspicious, a “bought” sentiment, merely because the wrong kind of people (and the wrong kind of money) like such a sentiment. A drawing of boundaries, an assertion that some arguments are wrong because they appeal to the wrong people—which is a way to prevent ever having the argument in the first place.

I feel that there is some of that going on here, to a lesser extent in Cultural Revolution’s original post, and very clearly in the comments of people like ‘roger,’ and gzombie’s claim that people like me aren’t “qualified to comment.” A boundary drawing that allows arguments to be dismissed out of hand, when engaging in these arguments is (this outsider would submit) the best way to revitalize academic literary criticism as it exists at the moment. I can understand why many people in the field have good reason to feel defensive – the right has been demonizing them for a couple of decades – but there’s a fruitful argument here, which could go some way towards solving the internal and external problems that the field has.

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DM SHERWOOD 04.12.05 at 10:01 am

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MIKE (dmsherwood53@hotmail.com)

52

Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 10:22 am

Timothy,

You are assigning me a position – a hypocritical position – that I’m sure I don’t hold. I would never claim that university money is somehow inherently “clean.” Obviously, there are some structures in place that mitigate the influence of that money upon what I do in the classroom etc. But it’s not an absolute firewall…

For obvious reasons, I can’t go into the details, but lets just say I recently given a choice as to the source of my funding (my salary as an asst. professor), and I voted with my feet to enter into a situation in which I was more comfortable with the provenance of the funds. The state rather than, ahem, the guys in scarlet milling around a certain southern European city just about now. Both institutions ostensibly offered “academic freedom.” But still… Sometimes it’s best to be sure…

So – yes – where the money comes from always matters. To different degrees, of course, but it always matters.

Your argument, like Henry’s, seems to be staked on the claim that ALSC is unaware of some potential secret, left agenda of the Valve:

“Arguably that’s what some of the conservative funders of the ALSC are up to as well: buying their way into an association with a project whose purposes they think they recognize.”

“If Holbo, Singh and the other Valve contributors (or the ALSC) want to explore a new mode of writing about literature and culture and there are right-wing commissars who mistakingly perceive that mode as an endorsement of their own agenda and throw money at them, I don’t think that’s intrinsically a problem.”

You absolutely need this “mistakenly perceive.”

Fine – if this is some elaborate hoax – drawing right-wing money and putting it to perverse uses – then I’m all for it. That’s fantastic. Wish I could do the same.

But how are we to know? We really do have to put a lot of faith in John, don’t we? What if ALSC is right after all?

You bring up ANSWER – I think there’s a scenario that’s actually a little closer to the case than being one of half a million marching in NYC.

Take Ralph Nader during the last election. Don’t you think he should have paused for a moment when the checks started rolling in from Deep Faith, Texas and Oil Well, Oklahoma? I sure as hell would have…

All that I am trying to say here is that John and the others should be very, very sure that the ALSC truly is mistaken, that they’re pulling one over on them – and that it’s not the other way around. Unless their comfortable with being the mouthpiece or alibi of the group…

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Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 10:30 am

Henry,

“To which I’d add (following Jacoby again) – an academic literary criticism that seeks to build, and talk to, a public sphere, seems to me to be much more obviously compatible with the basic left values that I share with most of the people with whom I disagree in this thread, than academic literary criticism as it exists today.”

“A boundary drawing that allows arguments to be dismissed out of hand, when engaging in these arguments is (this outsider would submit) the best way to revitalize academic literary criticism as it exists at the moment.”

I just think you’re jumping and skipping from one point to another here. If it were the case that the Valve was devoted primarily to the revitalization of left-literary discourse through the rediscovery of the public sphere, obviously my pointing out of the ALSC influence would hold less water.

I’m not too sure that the ALSC would be involved if that’s what it was – if that’s what it turns into. Let’s hope so…

Revitalization of literary discourse, perhaps… But toward left ends? I haven’t seen that there!

In short, your claim that the ALSC money doesn’t matter depends upon my acceptance that the ultimate (and secret? guerilla?) aims of the Valve are contrary to the aims of the ALSC… Are we sure that this is the case???

54

lemuel pitkin 04.12.05 at 10:39 am

One more question to add to CR’s good ones: Why does Valve need funding from anyone? Last I heard, lots of people were blogging for free.

55

drapeto 04.12.05 at 12:17 pm

Drapeto, if you’ve got a point to make, make it (in a couple of years of reading your occasional comemnts on this blog, I don’t recall you once making an actual argument, let alone putting forward your own alternative program. Am I wrong?

Uh, yeah, you’re wrong. But if you can’t work out the point I made in this very thread, that doesn’t really motivate my typing energies.

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GZombie 04.12.05 at 12:50 pm

Henry, why does academic literary criticism need to be revitalized? It’s not clear that you’re even familiar with what’s going on in literary studies as practiced by the vast majority of scholars today; you haven’t referred to any contemporary work that you think exhibits the problems you claim (via McLemee) exist. And that is why I say you’re not qualified to comment on the state of the field.

Do you know what articles and books have won awards from the various professional organizations affilitated with literary studies? What’s your opinion of them?

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mj 04.12.05 at 1:21 pm

Lemuel, we are blogging for free. The funding, I imagine, though John can speak to this, is for hosting.

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Timothy Burke 04.12.05 at 2:29 pm

Cultural Revolution, if you can point me to something specific that John’s written and really do a good interpretative reading of it as a reactionary sentiment that closely coheres to the ideological project of The Bell Curve or The John Birch Society, then I think you’d have an argument. If you’re saying that the critique of critical practice that some of the Valve posters have pursued is definitionally reactionary in some respect, then I think Henry’s initial remarks are actually on target. At the very least, I think it’s time to go back and explain very slowly and carefully why what they propose is actually reactionary in content if that’s what you believe: I hear a lot of insuinuative claims, as I often do in these conversations.

Otherwise, what you’re saying is, “Sure, Holbo hasn’t said anything that’s suspicious, YET, but since some of the money for this project comes from a suspicious source, it must be that he will say something soon that will help that source. Ergo, we cannot trust him.” Unless he’s stolen your lunch money recently or something, it’s hard to know why a guy with a long track record of writings warrants preemptive distrust that overrides any need to deliver an interpretation of what he’s actually written.

This view also assumes a kind of superrationality on the part of right-wing foundations, that they always purchase precisely the sort of hegemony-building institutions and discourses that they require and they always accurately foresee the institutional consequences of supporting various enterprises. For another, it really is politics as contagion, not to mention with a modest dollop of conspiracy on the side. There’s a kind of vulgar political economy to the notion that one can read hidden operations of power into arguments simply by following a money trail.

I don’t think you need to pose a “hoax”, that somehow the Valve has to be a cunning attempt to hoodwink the right in order to be legitimate. I just think you can say that if Holbo & Co. are trying to write a mode of literary criticism that invokes public-sphere writing of the first half of the 20th Century, and the ALSC finds that congenial because of their own dissatisfactions, and the ALSC in turn are found congenial by some right-wing organizations, you can’t just assume that you’ve Q.E.D some critique of the Valve itself (or even the ALSC) as if the mere fact of a second-order association constitues a critique. No hoax is necessary: it is entirely possible that even right-wing associations give out money without a Plan to Conquer the World on occasion.

This is what I sometimes call in my classes “spot the hegemon”: a form of critique that thinks it is enough to merely draw a lineage of historical descent that ties some practice or text to some originary figure whose extreme badness the critic feels safe in merely assuming rather than demonstrating.

At all stages of the game, you’ve got to actually make arguments and interpretations with some specificity, not just play connect-the-dots. What has the Valve said that the ALSC finds congenial? What has the ALSC done that the Bradley Foundation finds congenial? Is the Bradley Foundation correct to find that congenial, e.g., that the ALSC members are actually fellow travellers of the John Birch Society, or that what they’re doing in criticizing literary criticism is actually functional to or useful to the Bradley Foundation’s agenda? Is what the Valvle saying actually congenial or useful to the ALSC and thus to the Bradley Foundation? Useful or functional how exactly?

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Henry 04.12.05 at 2:57 pm

What Tim said.

I haven’t claimed that the Valve is a left wing project, or is in any way trying to pull the wool over the ALSC’s eyes. It isn’t. But there’s good ex ante reason to believe that democratizing argument, and trying to create a broader public sphere is exactly the kind of thing that the left should be doing. I think I’ve been quite clear about that throughout.

I’ll go further: the kind of division that some commenters here are trying to create, between academic literary criticism (which only other specialists, or those who read “contemporary literary fiction” are allowed to criticize), and vulgar debate over books is very strongly reminiscent of the division between “high culture” and “ordinary culture” that Raymond Williams tells us about, or the processes of distinction that Bourdieu describes. To be blunt, it smacks of defensive manoeuvres that aim to preserve discursive power, and to shut out debate that might be awkward or uncomfortable. Why, in the absence of evidence of right-wing intent, is a project like the Valve perceived as a political threat? I don’t believe that the answer to that question actually has to do with right-left divisions in politics.

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 3:03 pm

What Timothy Burke said.

And this kind of disagreement raises some interesting questions. Like ones about areas where either 1) left-right distinctions break down, or 2) the preoccupations of some on the left overlap with those of some on the right, or 3) some subjects are not really best described in the vocabulary of binary political handedness.

I’ve mused a time or two lately about why there are not more people on the right worried about or disgusted by the hostility to science and rationality in the dominant (governing) branch of the US Right or Republican Party. It seems odd to me, for a lot of reasons.

The automatic linkage of literary ‘theory’ with leftism and criticism of it with conservatism is at least as odd. What exactly is inherently left-wing about literary theory? Nothing that I’ve ever been able to figure out. And many of the posts on here just reinforce that impression – that the assumption is automatic, and its holders are not at all good at grounding it.

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 3:06 pm

snicker

I didn’t mean to echo Henry. That was a cross-post. In fact I literally echoed him the first time – I said ‘what Tim said’ – but then made it more formal, so as not to presume.

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Keith M Ellis 04.12.05 at 3:14 pm

Good God, this discussion is depressing. The problem here isn’t with critical methods, it’s with this view of the study of literature (and everything else) as just another branch of political activism. That’s what’s poisoning the well.

I’m not sure that Henry is making this argument and I won’t attribute it to him; but if he were, it’s his credentials I would trust in this context, not those of a literary theorist.

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Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 3:51 pm

First of all this is kind of interesting. I hedged my bets early on by saying that the Bradley Foundation gave “start-up money” to the ALSC. Turns out that it’s not just start-up money, and not just Bradley, but Scaife in all its many shapes and sizes –a wide coalition of right wing foundations. Actually, a roll call that collectively represents the “vast right wing conspiracy,” at least from the “philanthropic” angle. Have fun clicking around the links –

http://www.mediatransparency.org/search_results/info_on_any_recipient.php?recipientID=29

Anyway, Tim,

Your series of questions:

“What has the Valve said that the ALSC finds congenial? What has the ALSC done that the Bradley Foundation finds congenial? Is the Bradley Foundation correct to find that congenial, e.g., that the ALSC members are actually fellow travellers of the John Birch Society, or that what they’re doing in criticizing literary criticism is actually functional to or useful to the Bradley Foundation’s agenda? Is what the Valve saying actually congenial or useful to the ALSC and thus to the Bradley Foundation? Useful or functional how exactly?”

Well, this is EXACTLY what I’m asking John and the other member as well as the readers of the blog to ask themselves. Thanks for putting it out there so clearly. This is what I’d like them to speak to. Obviously, they don’t have to… But I’d appreciate it if they did – and I’m sure others would as well.

Here, I’ll state my question very, very clearly:

What do you think it is about your approach to literary studies (and/or attacks on literary theory) that makes the idea of the Valve attractive to the likes of the ALSC, given who they are and what they’re up to?

I’m certainly not saying that the ALSC or the Valve are necessarily intentionally fomenting right-wing revolution on campus. The point is that others seem to think they’re good bets for pushing the line ever further toward the right. The Bradley people surely didn’t think that Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, whose composition they funded, was going to set racial hierarchies “back where they belong,” but it’s a drop in the bucket.

Unfortunately, those drops have stopped pinging on the bottom of the bucket – the water’s starting to rise… The frigging Academic Bill of Rights is up for debate or vote in a bunch of states (an invention of Bradley/Scaife fundee David Horowitz)… International Studies departments have been decimated in the wake of 9/11…

So, yes, I’m a little touchy about the entrance of right-wing groups – or groups funded by right wing foundations – into the game. The point is this:

When I get anxious about the future of the profession that I have chosen to join, by anxiety comes not of the fear that my works won’t be read (they’ll be read by enough to matter), but that, given a few more turns of the screw, the freedom to speak, and argue, and write the way that I see fit will be abridged, suspended, cancelled.

Seriously – the “crisis of the humanities” that I worry the most about is not the relevance or irrelevance of my theoretical armature, but the idea that in a few years I might be sued or dismissed for not, say, “teaching both sides” of the literature of apartheid, or what you will.

Touchy, but it’s not stupid to be, the way things are going. Disappointed to see Holbo lining up on (or at least with, behind, in front of, wherever) the wrong side.

The hegemon, Tim, is winning – big time. If that’s not clear to you…

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Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 4:01 pm

Henry –

Never had a harsh word for the “vulgar debate over books,” so I sure as hell hope you weren’t talking about me. Believe me – the last thing on my mind (or under it) is an anxiety about the non-elect stealing my place at the pulpit. That’s not what this is about. At all.

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Henry 04.12.05 at 4:23 pm

The “vulgar debate” jibe was aimed at roger more than anyone else. But your response to Tim seems to me to be ducking the issue. It’s you who needs to be answering that question – not John Holbo, or the other people who are blogging on the Valve. In what way is the kind of blogging that is happening on the Valve useful to the right wing? You’ve made some quite harsh accusations – that John Holbo and others are joining up with the wrong side, advancing the cause of those who want to stifle debate in the academy. But you’ve yet to provide even the beginnings of the ghost of an argument as to how the Valve is advancing this agenda. It’s this that makes me ask whether or not there’s something else going on here. There’s a missing middle in your argument between right wing money that is funding an association that is then sponsoring a blog, and the possibility that you might be sued, dismissed etc in a few years. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate, as I’ve done, that this missing middle has something to do with the form of blogging that is taking place over there. I could certainly be wrong – but to show that I am, I really think that you need to lay out your actual argument as to how the ultimate source of funding translates into a blog abetting the possible triumph of the right wing in the academy. You haven’t done that.

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Timothy Burke 04.12.05 at 4:45 pm

I think there are so many degrees of separation between Horowitz and the Valve that to try and connect them becomes a kind of accidental re-enactment of Horowitz’ Discover the Network, suffused with the same kind of associational reasoning. If you’re worried about the Academic Bill of Rights, worry about the Academic Bill of Rights. Isn’t that worry enough for you? Why go on a snipe hunt armed with the hermeneutics of conspiracy?

Again, I’m also struck at the superrationality you ascribe to right-wing foundations, that if they fund something, they must not only have an idea of how it serves their instrumental purposes, but that they must be correct in their idea, even if the ostensible evidence suggests otherwise. The ostensible evidence in this case being the actual content of the Valve. How a commentary on Lethem’s opinion of Jack Kirby connects to the cultural right’s agenda is beyond me. In fact, to a very significant extent, if the Valve were one example among a number of a revivification of “the culture of letters” in the public sphere, it seems to me that such a development couldn’t help but undercut the philistinism of much of the cultural right, and it might also give people who are drawn to that right only because they feel shut out of the academic humanities as they presently exist a home much closer to their real instincts and desires. Now it might be at that point–when the people on the right who say they love literature and meaning and so on actually have to start talking about literature and meaning and stop talking about the Blue Meanings in the English Departments–that the money flow to something like the Valve would stop. But ok, fine, good: the major point it seems like the antithesis of interpretative, critical analysis to argue that the actual content Valve means something other than what it seems to mean simply because of the money that it receives.

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roger 04.12.05 at 5:05 pm

I think there are a number of separate issues here.

1. The issue of funding the Valve. Myself, I think it is great that the Valve got some body to ante up some money. Short of the money coming from the Aryan nation or exiled Saddamist officials, it is good to have money. I don’t think the Valve is going to give it back.

2. the issue of the “readability” or not of modern literary critics, and Jacoby’s idea, supported by Henry, that literary critics are unreadable and unread, and have no effect beyond the discipline of English. Unreadability is a subjective judgment — I’d rather read J. Hillis Miller than Helen Vendler. But unread is a more objective claim. I would say that it is a very poorly supported one. Did Partisan Review writers, in the forties, write NY times op ed reviews, as Stanley Fish has done a number of times? Did those writers put such influential memes into everyday speech as (alas) postmodern and deconstruction? Arguably, they did popularize a mix of Freud and Marx. Still, I think Jacoby’s argument, objectively, ignores the fact that the fifties saw the first GI Bill wave of college students, overwhelmingly white and male, and the effect of public intellectuals was ramified by this new audience, and the stability of such pillars as the unions, the political parties, and the remnant of activist culture from the thirties and forties. The new public intellectuals are more likely to reflect a new audience — female, for one. So instead of Daniel Bell, you have Elaine Showalter. But, pace Henry’s excluding of the example of France (France, apparently, is composed exclusively of Coneheads), the much ballyhooed Jacoby thesis doesn’t seem to hold water to me.

3. The posture of CT vis a vis literature. Myself, I think it stinks. And I think it is representative of something else that has happened (pace Jacoby) to literary culture in the past twenty years — the disappearance of the male reader of literary fiction. Henry, while dissing my distinction between sci fi and literary fiction by citing “prominent writers of literary fiction today – DeLillo, Lethem, Oates, Lessing, Chabon” — talk about a double bind — seems not to notice that none of those writers get very much attention in CT — in fact, if the novel doesn’t have a wizard or an alien in it, it goes right by. I can’t remember a post even mentioning Lessing or Oates. Now, I would simply mark this down to the peculiar tastes of the CT writers (and mark down, in addition, their judgments about literary criticism) if it weren’t exemplary in a very interesting way. Roth has complained about the same topic, and in fact it isn’t a secret in the publishing industry that the audience for serious fiction has become overwhelmingly female.

Which makes me all the more curious about the infantilization of male taste (ah, here’s that pomposity again, eh?)

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Henry 04.12.05 at 5:41 pm

none of those writers get very much attention in CT —in fact, if the novel doesn’t have a wizard or an alien in it, it goes right by.

Damn, we’ve been rumbled. If it weren’t that “Proust”:http://crookedtimber.org/2004/04/12/the-sweet-cheat-gone/, “Davenport”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/01/05/guy-davenport/, “Babel”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/03/22/n1/, “Grass”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/02/27/crabwalk/, “Sebald”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/01/21/oliver-kamm-yusuf-al-qaradawi-and-the-supreme-emergency-exception, “Crumey”:http://crookedtimber.org/2004/07/25/a-splendid-novel/, “O’Brien”:http://crookedtimber.org/2003/07/13/lean-handsome-deliberate/, and “Joyce”:http://crookedtimber.org/2003/11/26/sunny-jim/, (to chuck a few semi-randomly remembered names into our internal search engine) were such dab hands at describing robots and rocketships, we’d never have said a word about them. And we’d have passed over “Shakespeare”:http://crookedtimber.org/2004/10/07/national-poetry-day/ ‘s sonnets in silence, were it not for the nifty wizard in The Tempest (not as good as Gandalf, mind you, but for four hundred years ago, not bad).

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 5:49 pm

Why should a post mention Lessing or Oates? Third-rate writers, both of them. The James Gould Cozzenses of their day. They’ll be forgotten before the paint dries. And ain’t I a woman?

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roger 04.12.05 at 6:02 pm

Ophelia, I’m no fan of Oates — but of Lessing, I think you are dead wrong. From the Golden Notebook into the novels of the seventies, the woman was, as Joan Didion puts it, the Hound of Heaven in the Attic.

But really, how about say David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Stuart Dybek, Lionel Shriver, A.S. Byatt, A.L. Kennedy, James Kelman, etc., etc. Even bad fiction that ruminates about the alternative worlds in this one — hell, Bruce Wagner would do. How about the effect Delillo seems to be having on, um, genre novelists like Ellroy. How about, hey, Bellows. And that is just the English and Americans. How about Echenoz? How about Gao Xingjian? How about the most heavily philosophic novel since Doctor Faustus, Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies?

When an academic audience bugs out of any interest in contemporary literary writers and then goes ranting on about gist for the deconstructive mill, well, I’m sorry — I have no confidence in these judgments.

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 6:03 pm

Did it again. I keep crossing Henry. I should just wait.

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roger 04.12.05 at 6:08 pm

And Henry,
As for the wizard in the Tempest — to see no difference between Shakespeare’s use of magicians (remember, Bacon refers to various people we would refer to as “scientists” — Whewell’s word -as magicians) and J.K Rowling’s show pretty plainly why literary critics of the new historicist bent are needed.
You rather prove my case. Thanks.

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 6:10 pm

Well, the Golden Notebook is interesting, certainly, but the writing…? Just not good enough.

“When an academic audience bugs out of any interest in contemporary literary writers”

I don’t know – maybe I have a warped view. But I know so many people who are intensely interested in contemporary literary writers but not interested in any other kind of writers at all – I’ve gone off the whole idea, frankly. I think most contemporary literary writers are a waste of time and attention. There’s such an avalanche of rich, idea-sparking writing in all sorts of fields out there (and that kind of writing CT does talk about) that contemporary literary writers just seem wan and impoverished beside it.

Byatt herself (since you mention her) said much the same thing on Nightwaves a couple of weeks ago, in a discussion with Julian Baggini, Norm Levitt and a theologian named Philip Blond. She finds reading science such a relief from the humanities, she said, now the humanities have gone mad. There was a good deal of suppressed snickering around the table when she said that. You could tell they knew what she meant…

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 6:12 pm

Psst, Roger, Gandalf isn’t J K Rowling’s wizard. Different wiz, different set of books.

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GZombie 04.12.05 at 6:18 pm

I’m on the verge of becoming a troll in this thread, so I promise to do my best to make this my last comment. I’m also doing my best to purge my comments of all snark. I apologize if I am unsuccessful.

My concern is with the characterization of contemporary literary studies taking place here. (By the way, no one I know personally or professionally uses the term “literary criticism” to describe what we’re about.)

I’m an English professor, meaning obviously that I have an advanced degree in English, I read the relevant scholarly monographs and journals, I go to the conferences, I correspond with other English professors.

Henry Farrell is a political science professor.

Henry says contemporary literary studies is one thing.

I say Henry is wrong.

Whose opinion carries more weight?

I also say that people with PhDs in English are more qualified to opine on the state of contemporary literary studies because they read the relevant scholarly monographs and journals, they go to the conferences, they correspond with other English professors.

Perhaps Henry does these things, too. I’ve asked him to mention some of the scholarship he’s read recently that have led him to develop his opinion. He’s remained silent on the issue. Fair enough, but it would be easier for people like me take his opinion seriously if he demonstrated familiarity with what he’s talking about, rather than familiarity once removed gleaned from reading the comments of others about the field of literary studies.

Does this make people like me elitist? No.

Either you’re familiar with the subject you’re talking about or you’re not. If you’re not, then you’re not qualified to opine on that subject. I suspect a political scientist would say the same thing if the positions were reversed.

One can safely assume that an English professor is familiar with the field of contemporary literary studies.

It would be much more unusal for a political science professor to share that familiarity. Therefore, the political science professor is under a greater burden of proof to demonstrate said familiarity.

No?

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roger 04.12.05 at 6:27 pm

Ophelia, that’s pretty much what I thought. So, why should anyone believe any judgment about literature from people who can’t be bothered with it? If I decided to talk about my firm belief in UFOs, and said I pretty much can’t be bothered with that non-spiritual science garbage, you’d know where to pigeonhole that opinion. People who can’t be bothered to keep up with contemporary literature, but do seem to bother to keep up with X Y and Z fantasy books, and don’t really seem to be spending their opportunity time re-acquainting themselves with Zola or something — sorry, it is hard to sympathize with their fascinating opinions about literature. Or about the effects of literary criticism, or about their seriousness about the culture of the humanities. Byatt, by the way, has been saying the same thing for twenty years. Doesn’t keep her from writing novels that are certainly not mistakeable for even literary sci fi of the Margaret Atwood type.

Oh, and yes, sorry about the Lord of the Rings/Harry the Potter mixup. Seeing both on videos with kids, lately — which one was it with the guy on the white horse and the animated trees with the big spidery thing? Somehow, though, I never get Prospero mixed up with Gandalf. …

Unfair. There are fantasy tales, like Lord of the Rings, which are fine with me. And H.G. Wells and Philip Dick, etc. But to make this kind of thing your meat and drink is infantalizing, like never going beyond french fries and milkshakes.

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Ophelia Benson 04.12.05 at 6:45 pm

Prospero, phooey – give me Owen Glendower any day. ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep.’ ‘Why so can I, and so can any man, but will they come when you do call for them?’ On second thought keep both of them, I’ll take Hotspur. No, keep all three, I’m for Hal – no, wait, Falstaff – no –

I’m going, I’m going.

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Henry 04.12.05 at 6:54 pm

gzombie – fair enough now that you’ve restated your request in a slightly less polemic fashion (although I’m one to complain). Ur-Europeans: I’m pretty familiar with Foucault, Barthes, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss as well as various Marxist structuralists who aren’t really very influential any more (e.g. Althusser etc). I’ve read all of Benjamin except the Arcades project, and have a pretty good grasp of the Frankfurt school types. Considerably less familiar with Bakhtin, Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, though I’ve read them. Haven’t read Cixous or much of the French feminists at all. Deleuze and Guattari I’ve tried to read but given up on – though I have read a fair amount of Toni Negri. Latterday heavyweights – have read Fredric Jameson, Homi Bhabha, whose work I dislike intensely, and have dipped into, but only dipped into, Zizek and Butler. I did try going through several issues of Social Text last year (somewhat dated – I was accessing them through JSTOR if I remember correctly), when John Holbo was discussing these issues, and didn’t find much that I liked. Modern lit-crit stuff that I do like tends towards the old fashioned – Helen Vendler etc. Quite enjoyed Greenblatt’s Will in the World, although I haven’t read his core scholarship. Other than that, mostly superannuated types – Kermode etc. Like Howard Bloom’s earlier work, but not his later bloviating. I like Appiah too, but he’s not exactly writing about the same kinds of things. I don’t pretend that this makes me into an authority – but I do think it is enough to make me, at least potentially, an informed reader, or as close to an informed reader as you’re likely to get without being someone who’s a specialist in the field. I’m writing this post in a sense of mild frustration – my claim is that there ought to be more out there that someone with my background can usefully enjoy, and even better, stuff that those who haven’t got this background can enjoy.

roger – thanks for demonstrating my point by manifestly failing to get the joke (and indeed for bloviating about this blog’s failure to talk about A.S. Byatt in a post which includes a direct Byatt quotation). And if we’re going to talk about Byatt’s arguments about the role of literature, we might want to mention her championing of the novels of Terry Pratchett (wizards galore) and Robert Irwin, and the stories of Steven Millhauser, mightn’t we.

Update: should have said that I’ve read all of Benjamin that’s easily accessible in the English language; tried once to wrestle with him in German, and failed miserably.

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gzombie 04.12.05 at 7:58 pm

Thanks, Henry. That’s an interesting list, but not really indicative of the current state of the field.

Certainly the theorists you cite have been (and remain) influential, but you’d get a better sense of how (or if) they’ve influenced literary studies if you read more contemporary stuff.

Here’s one suggestion for getting a sense of what we do: each issue of the well-regarded journal Studies in English Literature (available through JSTOR as well as Project Muse) features an essay by a prominent scholar on “Recent Studies in …

…the English Renaissance” (issue 1);
…Tudor and Stuart Drama” (issue 2);
…the Restoration and Eighteenth Century” (issue 3);
…the Nineteenth Century” (issue 4).

You might also browse the abstracts for the other articles that appear in each issue and see that they are quite interesting and more than a little accessible to the intelligent reader. I have my students at every level research and read at least one recent scholarly article, and I have only had one or two students fail to understand what they came up with.

If, as so many seem to believe, contemporary literary studies were characterized by solipsistic, impenetrable, theory-addled writing, this standard assignment would be a miserable failure.

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gzombie 04.12.05 at 8:01 pm

Two addenda:

My students are to read articles from any scholarly literary journal, not just SEL.
Want to know what the MLA values? Check out the prizes they award: http://www.mla.org/resources/awards/awards_winners

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Joe Pesci, Ph.D. in English 04.12.05 at 8:25 pm

“– my claim is that there ought to be more out there that someone with my background can usefully enjoy, and even better, stuff that those who haven’t got this background can enjoy.”

You mean I’m funny? Funny how? Funny like a clown? I’m here to amuse you?

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roger 04.12.05 at 9:36 pm

Henry, man, I was bloviating about Lessing. About Byatt, I was merely replying.

As to manifestly not getting your sidesplitter, well, let me crack another one: it’s rather beating a dead chestnut to imply that those who look down upon the genre of sci fi just don’t see that fantastic elements have been central to literature since Apuleius was a pup (or colt, as the case may be). Look at Lucian! Look at Cyrano de Bergerac! Look at the wizards and magicians in Shakespeare!

I have no problem, really, with fantastic elements, and no bias for thinking realism is the center of literature. In fact, I think realism is shot through with the gothic — unimaginable without it. And though I view Byatt’s taste in literature as definitely not my own, a much stronger writer than Irwin, Angela Carter, sometimes went all the way with the genre (for a sci fi novel without an alien or wizard, nothing beats The Passion of the New Eve — although it has turned into a realistic novel in the heady age of Bush).

On the other hand, the fifties Partisan Review crowd (which, given your approval of Jacoby, seems to be some kind of model for you) definitely did not struggle with the finer meanings of I robot — they struggled with Augie March, or the Underground Man, or The Barbary Coast. Now, maybe they should have paid a bit more attention to I Robot. However, the refusal to engage with the novel (poetry I am leaving to one side) as an intellectual event at all, save when it is something safely fantastic, is a pretty striking thing about this site. I read CT regularly, and I like it — but the absence of the literary, or any sense of what is happening in literary criticism, is disheartening.

Enough bloviated for one night.

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seth edenbaum 04.12.05 at 9:40 pm

The category under which this post is listed on CT is academia.
Not: “The Arts’
Not: ‘Literature’
Not: “Politics.”

The love of academia as academia

grotesque

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Henry 04.12.05 at 10:23 pm

OK roger, so perhaps we can move from mutual rudeness to a real argument. The reason for the relative predominance of f/sf on this site is partly choice, partly historical accident. Chris Bertram, Kieran and the others occasionally post about literature, but talk about it less than John and I, who have become the de facto fiction bloggers. And in part (at least on my part), we’ve been continuing a conversation that started a couple of years ago (before either of us were in Crooked Timber, or were well-known bloggers) about the circumstances under which f/sf could approach the state of literature.

That’s the historical accident bit – the choice bit (on my part) is that (kvetching in this post aside) there is a fair amount of good discussion of literature out there, in a variety of formats. But there’s a sort of borderland area where some writers with very real literary merit languish, without much in the way of serious discussion, because they’re on the wrong side of the genre boundary. Angela Carter gets plenty of love (I remember reading somewhere that she’s the most frequently assigned writer in UK university courses? could this be true?), which is well deserved (although my personal favourite isn’t New Eve; it’s “Nights at the Circus.”) But other writers who have an equal claim to attention, don’t get it. John Crowley, for example – his “Little, Big” is Harold Bloom’s favourite novel of all time, has been described by Michael Dirda as a candidate for Great American Novel of the last thirty years, but which gets little critical attention outside the genre. Gene Wolfe; also an extraordinary writer; Paul Park too. The reason why I choose to write a lot about f/sf is not a statement that this is an uniquely wonderful genre – but that it doesn’t get enough serious reading, whereas other forms of worthwhile writing do (or at least get more of it). My leisure reading, as best as I can judge is about 40% genre (f/sf, mystery etc), 30% ‘serious’ fiction (I’m now reading Marai and Lampedusa (interesting contrasts in decayed aristocracy); 30% non-fiction (primarily history, with some science). But there is a lot of good close reading available, say, of Lampedusa – there isn’t very much on Crowley. So I devote my limited blogging attention where it will do most good. If, however, I ask John and the others at some stage to post on the Valve, I’ll probably post more on modern literature, because that’s what the Valve’s conversation is mostly about.

I will acknowledge that my tastes tend towards the Gothic and excessive in conventional fiction as well as f/sf, with some important exceptions (Austen, Penelope Fitzgerald).

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Henry 04.12.05 at 10:24 pm

Seth – the reason the post is under this heading is because academia is the default category under our implementation of WordPress – I’ll try to categorize it properly when next I log in.

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Cultural Revolution 04.12.05 at 11:37 pm

OK, back, but honestly, I’m getting a bit tired out.

You want me to comment on the Valve, show you what I’m talking about. OK, fine…

(there are reasons that I didn’t want to do this over here, but whatever…)

From the Valve today, Dan Green’s post:

“Indeed, the notion that literary study is working its way toward that point in the future when “workable and approximate conclusions” might be reached, either about the nature of literature itself or about particular poems, stories, or novels, has become mostly preposterous. The only “purposive steps” taken by literary study in the last twenty years are those which erase the achievements of the previous generation of scholars in order to advance the newest and the latest in academic criticism. The future is the time when the “arguments” made by those jumping on past theoretical bandwagons are definitively shown to be ludicrously mistaken and the most recent fad is demonstrated to be the real source of critical insight.”

First of all, this argument is pretty close to delusional. I’m in the sort of “advanced English department” that Green’s talking about, and ivy one, and in my cohort of Ph.D. candidates, each and every dissertation is primarily focused devising “workable and approximate conclusions” about a literary texts or texts. Twain, British fin de siecle lit, visuality in renaissance plays, the trope of the antarctic in victorian texts, gothic fiction, confessional poetry, etc. Not a single straight “theoretical” project to be found. And I have a pretty good sense of what’s going on in other English departments – same sort of thing.

We read literature. Yes, we historicize. Sometimes “theorize” (whatever that means, exactly), but it’s literature up and down the street.

And I’d say Green’s post is exactly the sort of thing the ALSC is interested in… A baseless (and seriously – it’s really, really baseless…) attack on the “uselessness” and even political manipulativeness of English departments. I love this next part:

“Presumably, something like this model still prevails for most literature professors, except that much academic criticism does seem to be designed to have some sort of cultural and political effect (although it certainly isn’t written in a language that would enable it to have an immediate political impact) and that the attempt to influence student attitudes is quite explicit. The goal is not so much to acquaint students with the various useful ways in which a literary text might be understood but to convince them that one way–the method used by the professor, the outlook deemed most socially progressive–is the right way.”

“Attempt to influence student attitudes” – that’s right, the project on religious visuality in Christopher Marlowe’s plays is an attempt to bring the students to a barricade building froth.

And, yessir, this is the sort of claim that would be of interest not only to the ALSC (it’s their bread and butter…) but Bradley and Scaife as well… That’s Horowitz-ism, with better spelling. And completely baseless, at least from my experience in an “advanced English department.”

Oh, but is the standard that I have to reach a proof that the ALSC is “behind” this post? That every single post on the Valve takes the same shape? I couldn’t definitely prove that an attack on “mud people” on a Christian Identity website was programmed from on high, or that the folks who write on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page are reciting talking-points… The point of my original post was this: given the ALSC’s support of the site, I expected that we’d see baseless polemics against English departments along the lines of Green’s. Lo and behold, there it is…

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seth edenbaum 04.12.05 at 11:45 pm

I think it belongs right where it is.

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Keith M Ellis 04.12.05 at 11:52 pm

It’s not clear to me that roger has earned a response. He’s come very close to self-satirization. At minimum, he’s been provocative for provocation’s sake. He’s so smug and self-satisfied that his isn’t discourse, it’s masturbation. Whenever I’m an egregiously condescending prick, I ask myself: for what insecurities am I compensating? roger’s apparent compensation is nothing short of heroic.

roger, gzombie, and others are quick to dismiss Henry’s criticisms as those of someone far overreaching their expertise, and yet roger writes this to a political scientist:

“What isn’t subjective is that Foucault, Barthes and Deleuze and Guattari have all been best sellers in France; nor is it subjective that Foucault had a very strong influence in France with regards to laws concerning sexuality in the seventies; or that the connection between feminist literary theory and wider feminist political movements have been much more successful than, say, the connection between new criticism and the Southern agrarian movement, or the Anglo-Catholic movement.”

The accusation against Henry that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about is insufferable given the obvious tendency of the contemporary literary theorist, as evidenced by the quote above, to see every subject and discipline to be within his purview. Pot, please pick-up the black courtesy telephone.

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seth edenbaum 04.13.05 at 12:13 am

“Indeed, the notion that literary study is working its way toward that point in the future when “workable and approximate conclusions” might be reached, either about the nature of literature itself or about particular poems, stories, or novels, has become mostly preposterous.”

Someday we’ll really understand the Iliad, and then we can stop reading it and go on to Arthur C. Clarke….
and the response comes from a teenager, who says “yesss we will! We will!” and who names his organ after Chairman Mao.

I think I’m changing the name of my blog to ‘The Great Leap Forward’

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Keith M Ellis 04.13.05 at 12:26 am

Seth, how exactly was that a productive comment?

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Jonathan 04.13.05 at 12:37 am

I disagree with Green’s argument and wrote a comment saying as much. I didn’t feel the need to be self-righteous about it, however, largely because I know that the Valve contributors have diverse views about literary studies and are not under editorial constraint.

So I’d give it a while and read what everyone has to write before getting all Zhdanovite up in here.

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Cultural Revolution 04.13.05 at 12:57 am

Seth,

Fine, but I’m changing the name of my blog to “Old and Irrelevant.”

What in christ’s name is wrong with you? What’s with the age stuff? “Teenager”? I noticed the “kiddo” you left for me on my blog as well.

Age hangup? Midlife crisis?

Your blog is filled with links to your comments on Crooked Timber. Greatest hits, I guess. “Wow, I really gave it to them here!” Made me kind of sad to see it. Lonely looking.

“An Unenviable Situation” indeed. But you don’t have to take it out on me.

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john c. halasz 04.13.05 at 1:49 am

I proffered my theory-in-a-nutshell of literature, which was initially conceived in counter-position to French-fried Lit-Crit “THEORY”, by way of oblique comment from the standpoint of those of us who live utterly outside of the hallowed groves of academe, and who think deludedly that we live in a real world, whether blessedly or accursedly. (And in anticipation of the pettifoggery of academic debate.) The critical point was that one should take account of what literature does and can do, and, equally, of what it can not do, by way of critical delimitation. The more-radical-than-thou posturings of the mavens of Lit-Crit are simply a reflection of the mock-omniverous nature of the medium. The complaint of those of us on the outside- (of the outside, due to echo-effects)- has to do with the displacement and evisceration of literary works in the name of “THEORY” in place of the literary-critical task of situating them in their field- (in the roughly Einsteinian rather than the academic sense).

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blah 04.13.05 at 2:01 am

Reading this thread reminded me why I dropped out of my English graduate program.

As far as I can tell, contemporary literary study in the U.S. has essentially become amateur sociology, amateur political science, amateur history in the service of rooting out race, class, gender, and sexual identity bias – too often done with insufferable arrogance and condescension. It’s pretty much a dead end. If you ask other English grad exiles, they’ll know exactly what I am talking about.

But it doesn’t surprise me that the defenders of the institution, the true believers, have reacted with such ferocity. They really believe they are serving some noble purpose, serving the cause of justice. It’s that self-delusion that gives too many of them such arrogance.

Anyway, time to cut through the crap. So this website took some right wing money, big deal? As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the taste. If the pudding tastes good, then good for them for making it on the right wing’s dime. If the pudding is sour, then that is the time to denounce them.

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eb 04.13.05 at 2:34 am

It’s practically deja lu all over again. Except Chun seems to be missing from the conversation.

In any case, rather than get lost in the fray I’d just like to thank gzombie for providing information on where to find out more about the contemporary state of literary studies. It’s not my field, and no matter how many of these threads I read – against my better judgment, I think – I can’t seem to figure out what’s going on there. Those references help.

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Doug 04.13.05 at 5:53 am

I see no one in my time zone is posting here, so I’ll take advantage and catch up on some of the quotes from up-thread.

I honestly don’t see why a version of literary criticism which isn’t aimed at the academy, but is aimed at a wider audience, can’t be, and shouldn’t be, a more effective political move than continuing on the way that things are.
Henry

I’d settle for the first half: criticism aimed at a wider audience. The profusion of blogs helps, and the more the merrier.

I was drawn to the Valve because I like Holbo’s writing, and I hope to gain from what his co-writers post.

The whole left-right split looks a bit parochial from Over Here. Lots of the specifics of left-right polarizations transfer poorly between countries, for reasons the comparativists and the area studies people are probably happy to explain.

Which leads to:

How concerned are political scientists that their scholarship be something that citizens and politicians are going to respond to?
gzombie

Concerned may not be the word, but certainly interested. In international relations and international political economy, there’s a substantial overlap between professors and practitioners, and substantial two-way traffic between the groups. On the domestic (US) side, there’s a long spectrum from theory to nut-and-bolts, but even the most abstract parts (constitutional theory, for instance) link up to actual political practice at several points (con theory linking to constitutional lawyers and appeals courts, for instance).

I think it’s safe to generalize that there is a very large share of people broadly described as political science professors who believe it would be a good idea for citizens and political practitioners to pay attention to their work. (We could, of course, do some surveys and find out almost for sure…)

Either you’re familiar with the subject you’re talking about or you’re not. If you’re not, then you’re not qualified to opine on that subject. I suspect a political scientist would say the same thing if the positions were reversed.
gzombie

Gotta disagree. While that proposition might be true for narrow questions, for the larger questions of politics it’s definitely not. The key actions of politics — voting, organizing, contributing, campaigning — are open to each and every citizen. And people opine away, heedless of their formal qualifications, as indeed they should.

We read literature. Yes, we historicize. Sometimes “theorize” (whatever that means, exactly), but it’s literature up and down the street.
cultural revolution

Very glad to hear it. Why is this not more widely known?

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GZombie 04.13.05 at 7:09 am

Doug writes, “I think it’s safe to generalize that there is a very large share of people broadly described as political science professors who believe it would be a good idea for citizens and political practitioners to pay attention to their work.”

Imagine what kind of a reaction I’d get if I wrote: I think it’s safe to generalize that there is a very large share of people broadly described as English professors who believe it would be a good idea for readers and authors to pay attention to their work.

Doug writes, “The key actions of politics—voting, organizing, contributing, campaigning—are open to each and every citizen. And people opine away, heedless of their formal qualifications, as indeed they should.”

Right, and anyone is of course free to talk about literature, regardless of advanced education, as they should.

But when you want to talk about the project of literary studies, which is what I’m referring to (and what Henry’s post refers to) and what the Valve is a response to, then having an advanced degree in the subject means you’re more qualified to offer an opinion by virtue of the fact that you’re more likely to be familiar with the subject. Don’t characterize what I’m saying as an argument for some kind of bouncer at the door, preventing the riff-raff from coming in.

We’re seeing a lot (an awful lot) of generalization in this thread about what the academic study of literature is about. But no one has actually referred to a single recent work of scholarship on literature.

When CR asserts what it is we do, Doug writes, “Very glad to hear it. Why is this not more widely known?”

For the same reason what scholars in computer science departments or economics departments or history departments do is not more well known: people outside the academy don’t typically pay much attention to what goes on inside the academy. The average person doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in literature departments and it’s the literature departments’ fault? And why are literature departments held to this standard of accessibility when almost no other department is?

Farther up, blah writes, “contemporary literary study in the U.S. has essentially become amateur sociology, amateur political science, amateur history in the service of rooting out race, class, gender, and sexual identity bias”

Nope, not at all, although this is a common stereotype. Contemporary literary study in the U.S. is characterized by an interest in

* literary genre;

* the historical development of the professional author;

* the historical development of the commercial print trade;

* the ways writers and critics have negotiated the tensions between art and commerce;

* the mutual influence of literature and other arts like music, painting, and architecture;

* the processes by which the canon has been constructed and debated;

* the influence writers of various kinds have on each other synchronically and diachronically;

* the editing of scholarly editions;

* the impact of new technologies upon the way we read and write; in literary authors’ participation in political projects (think Swift, Pope, Gay in the early eighteenth century);

* the way religious belief affects the creation and reception of literary works;

* the history of reading;

* and a wide variety of other topics having to do with the reading, writing, performing, and publishing of poetry, fiction, drama, and prose nonfiction.

Dozens of articles on these topics come out every single quarter in academic literary journals. These articles are widely available online through JSTOR and Project MUSE. Please…go read some of them.

Those of us who care about the public perception of academic literary study are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

1) If we ignore the debate taking place, then we’re accused of being aloof and irrelevant.

2) If we jump into the debate taking place, then we’re accused (by people like blah above) of being “true believers” who “have reacted with such ferocity” because we “really believe [we] are serving some noble purpose, serving the cause of justice.” We apparently suffer from “self delusion” and “arrogance.”

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seth edenbaum 04.13.05 at 7:10 am

“I honestly don’t see why a version of literary criticism which isn’t aimed at the academy, but is aimed at a wider audience, can’t be, and shouldn’t be, a more effective political move than continuing on the way that things are.”

I don’t see why any human rather than technical activity can’t be and shouldn’t be… etc. And the technical activity and the human activity of politics -political ‘science’- are obviously in conflict. This ties into Juan Cole’s comments on Israel.

And ‘Continual Revolution’, if you don’t see the conflict between your politics and class, that your language and manner as actions in the world are in conflict with your ideas about it (and that ideas always lose) you are in a more unenviable situation than I am.

Liberal intellectuals vs radical intellectuals discussing intellectualism rather than politics.
I’m out of time off to work again. I have cabinets to install.

My parents managed to read and teach Henry James while enjoying the benefits of a tapped phone and an FBI file.

Messers Holbo and Revolution, I wish you the same.

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John Emerson 04.13.05 at 8:57 am

Halasz: Literature is “the modal-relational dimension of meaning-constitution that is suppressed by the referential claims” which “explores the experience of the real via counterfactual narrative and figuration.”

I’m anti-theory, but I actually like that. (Update: From his later post it appears that halasz is not a Theorist. Whew.)

Gzombie “I also say that people with PhDs in English are more qualified to opine on the state of contemporary literary studies because they read the relevant scholarly monographs and journals, they go to the conferences, they correspond with other English professors.”

I object to the attempt to use a closed corporation as the vanguard or stronghold of left politics. Professionalization and autonomy are themselves problems. The political relevance of academic leftism is uncertain to me.

Keith Ellis — well, you don’t think that economics should be politicized either, so with all due respect I think that your opinion should be ignored. I’ve tried to talk to you, but you’re adamant in your ivory-tower obsession.

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pedro 04.13.05 at 9:20 am

Well, it’s pretty clear that gzombie knows what she is talking about. I simply wish to say that an engagement with literature that gets race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and other discourses of inclusion/exclusion involved, has–in my view–more intellectual merit than one which takes pains to avoid them.

Social scientists get rightly exasperated when evolutionary psychologists dismiss all the relevant sociological data in their musings about IQ and ethnicity or gender. One would think they would welcome New Historicism (for example), rather than lambaste it. One would think that they would find all this business of ‘appreciation’ rather naive.

Folks, I’m not arguing about what is the most effective way for people in literary studies to engage politically in the public sphere. It’s fair enough that this seems to be a preoccupation of Henry’s and others, and I frankly do not have a strong opinion on the matter, nor do I have anything against there being projects like the Valve.

Yeah, Susan Sontag was an interesting public intellectual, and yes, I wish we had more Susan Sontags around. But, would it be sensible to indict contemporary analytical philosophy because it no longer has a public intellectual like Bertrand Russell at the helm?

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Timothy Burke 04.13.05 at 9:31 am

Gzombie, I think that’s a good summary of the state of literary studies and criticism. I think it’s fair for many academic literary critics to complain that at least some of the characterizations made of academic literary criticisms in discussions like this one are not especially cognizant of that summary, are not particularly aware of what contemporary literary criticism is, often preferring instead to imagine contemporary academic literary criticism as critical theory of a decade ago.

However. On the flip side, I’d say that some of the defenses of the current state of literary criticism do amount to a sort of gate-keeping that is not unique to academic literary critics, but instead is a common response of academic disciplines in general to certain forms of public criticism (or even criticism that is perceived as coming from other academic disciplines). Namely, that the critics lack an insider’s understanding of what a discipline really does, and that if they had such an understanding, they wouldn’t have the criticisms that they do.

This defense in the case of literary criticism (or the humanities as a whole) is part of the problem that’s on the table, and I don’t think gzombie and Cultural Revolution can just offer it and walk away. First, because this defense assumes a homogeneity of ignorance among the critics of the academic humanities, as if they are all equally clueless about the interior of academic literary criticism in its current form, equally inexpert. I’d say, working through this thread, that there is in fact a significant heterogeneity, and that in the case of the Valve (or the ALSC) it’s pretty condescending to suggest that the critics don’t know any of the scholarship that would fall into gzombie’s list. I would agree with gzombie’s summary, for example, but knowing that summary myself, and much of the literature on it, doesn’t necessarily mean that I have no criticisms of academic literary criticism–or that some of my criticism wouldn’t resemble in a loose way the arguments being made by some of the Valve’s contributors. If you look at gzombie’s list, it’s striking how much of it reflects the historicist turn in literary studies. That turn is nothing like the cruder caricatures made of it by some outsiders, but it’s still a turn nevertheless, and to some extent, the “appreciative turn” being advocated by some of the Valve authors is a very sophisticated and deliberate response to the historicist mode of criticism.

Hence the suggestion that at least some of the criticism of the Valve’s or the ALSC’s financial support is a kind of evasion that prevents a real conversation from happening within the space of academic literary criticism itself: it exports that conversation to an extra-disciplinary space. Though in a way that is actually a pretty good and potentially sophisticated reflection of historicist method, and this is part of the “meta” problem we have here. To convene a conversation about historicism within the space of academic literary criticism may require actually ceding too much to the critics of historicism before the conversation even starts, may involve assertions of prior parity before there is a determination of parity. I understand that issue: it’s a problem with all formalizations of negotiation.

Nevertheless, this means that assertions that only literary critics properly know the interior practice of academic literary criticism and are thus properly the only ones who can characterize it fairly *are* a kind of gatekeeping, because this sets a discursive rule that necessarily returns a result in which a certain class of criticisms, no matter how knowledgable they may be about the scholarship, are by definition out of bounds. Other disciplines do this too. Philosophers say Rorty is not a philosopher because the nature of his criticisms are such that they operate outside the space of philosophy. Which is Rorty’s point: that philosophy is defined incorrectly. To debate that within the space of academic philosophy in a way concedes Rorty’s point. Etcetera: name a discipline and I’ll name you a boundary figure to whom these things are being done, and I’ll point you to sentiments that sound very much like gzombie’s or Cultural Revolution’s.

The metaproblem here though is that all disciplines are not created equal, even though gzombie suggests that they are by making the frustration of the academic literary critic comparable to the frustration of the academic computer scientist or the academic political scientist. One of the driving arguments that I take to be present in at least some of the Valve’s content is that the humanities should not be conceived as having the same kinds of expertise that other academic disciplines might. A computer scientist or physicist might say, “You can’t do my discipline unless you have the expertise” and point to a relation between thought and the world that seems to bear that out. A literary critic can’t necessarily do the same. What does expertise in literary criticism in its expert form, as described by gzombie, deliver to the world? Why is it necessary?

This can be attacked as a kind of philistinism, but only if you have an aesthetic view of literary criticism–that it is beautiful, sublime, ineffable, something or anything that should not be violated by hack-job demands for utility. That might work with certain kinds of criticism, but certainly not for the more historicist varieties on gzombie’s list. For historicism of any flavor, the only defense of doing it in an expert way that is somewhat opaque to outsiders is that there is a craftwork involved, a methodology, which delivers results which are more “true”. At which point one has to explain the utility of delivering this knowledge. At which point historicist critics either conceptualize that utility in broadly political terms (often in a loosely Gramscian or Brechtian form, either knowledge as informing about hegemony or knowledge as the revelation through alienation of the socially and culturally “real”) or they have to conceptualize that utility in a way that mimicks the social sciences: that it helps us to understand how culture and society work, which informs some kind of decision-making or policy-making process (including democratic citizenship, etc).

Or critics can make a utility-claim in more romantic terms, about the enrichment, enlightenment or emancipation of the self. But that starts to sound more and more like the “appreciative” turn in criticism, about the use of literature or culture for the cultivation of the self. And at this point, the proposition that literary criticism requires certain kinds of expert operations which are opaque to those not properly trained in those operations becomes really problematic.. Once the purpose of criticism is the mediation of a relation between readers and texts as opposed to expert inquiry into the social and historical nature of textuality and intertextuality, the idea that literary criticism requires deeply disciplinary training becomes very dubious. It’s rather like Catholic theology insisting that the priest must serve as the intermediary between God and man at a moment when it’s already been conceded that each individual must seek their own relation to God, and the role of a minister is to guide and advise that quest.

My problem would be that I think historicist criticism (and several other flavors of contemporary academic critical practice) is either significantly confused about the utility of maintaining a highly disciplinary and expert practice or is disingenuous about its purposes in an age where it has become more dangerous to profess an openly political sense of the purpose of expert criticism. I think it’s really more the former than the latter, and that one of the things that provokes assertions that literary criticism is not understood by outsiders is a simple impulse of academic sociology, that all academics make claims on resources within the academy premised on a rhetoric of egalitarianism and homogeneity, that all disciplines are created equal and have equally “expert” domains. To concede an asymmetry–that the humanities should be broadly communicative, that academics in the humanities are guides and teachers rather than “experts” producing highly specialized knowledge, while the sciences and a few hard social sciences remain knowledge-producing in a highly specialized way, would in practical terms probably be a disaster: it would lead many academic institutions to throw the humanities overboard even more than they already have. This is quite wrong: but I think to convince the public that the academic humanities have a different function and nature than the sciences and still need to be a major area of activity in universities and colleges will require something more than circling the wagons and arguing that nobody really understands academic literary criticism the way academic literary critics do. It will require something rather more like the Valve–the exploration of practices of writing and interpretation which preserve a space for people of greater knowledge to usefully instruct those of lesser knowledge, but which do not defend academic humanities as if they were equally expert, equally specialized, equally difficult with the sciences.

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Ray Davis 04.13.05 at 9:40 am

gzombie: “These articles are widely available online through JSTOR and Project MUSE. Please… go read some of them.”

It would be pretty to think so. Unfortunately for pretty, in fact only employees or students of adequately funded insitutions have access to JSTOR, the MUSE journals, or the Chadwyck-Healey holdings.

Since I was fortunate enough to live within two hours of a state university, for years I paid a yearly fee, and gained the privilege to visit its library during the all-too-brief overlaps between its open hours and my available time. (Should I mention that the librarians at this world class institution went so compact-shelving wild that all of English literature competes for two open aisles? That Carlyle can be pursued only at the risk of crushing a Chaucerian? That any attempt at browsing soon attracts a clump of anxious apologetic crankers-in-waiting? Dis is a system?)

But this fee was not sufficient to make me a “member” of the “community” with access to online materials.

If you dig a moat around your shop and post a guard at the door, it’s poor taste to complain about the lack of drop-in traffic.

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John Emerson 04.13.05 at 9:59 am

“But, would it be sensible to indict contemporary analytical philosophy because it no longer has a public intellectual like Bertrand Russell at the helm?”

YES!

Not Bertrand Russell, though, but John Dewey, whose descendents have been squeezed out of the guild. I’ve read that even Popperians are defunct in the US.

“If you dig a moat around your shop and post a guard at the door, it’s poor taste to complain about the lack of drop-in traffic.”

I agree with that too.

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GZombie 04.13.05 at 10:04 am

“If you dig a moat around your shop and post a guard at the door, it’s poor taste to complain about the lack of drop-in traffic.”

As I’ve written before, I’m all for open-access electronic journals, and I know that most academics would love it if everyone everywhere could read their work. Your complaint is with the advocates of unreasonable intellectual property laws and the forces behind the increasing commercialization of scholarship. Scholars get paid nothing for the articles they publish.

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Timothy. But I I’m saying the exact opposite of what you think I’m saying.

Yes, come one, come all! Read the works currently being published in academic literary studies and let’s have a conversation about academic literary studies. It’s interesting, accessible stuff.

Read it, and let’s talk about it. Don’t, however, refuse to read it and then tell me what’s wrong with it.

And do not develop an opinion of the subject (and I’m talking about literary studies, remember, not literature; some readers here seem to have a hard time distinguishing between the two) by reading second- and third-hand accounts of what’s going on.

That’s it. I’m not advocating circling the wagons.

And here’s this: Go, Valve, go! Rah! Rah! Rah!

[I do wish, however, that John Holbo’s recent post about Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies would have attempted to contrast Birkerts with some of the fascinating related work done in the ten years since GE came out: for example, one might look into the work of Espen Aarseth, Jay David Bolter, Roger Chartier, Richard Grusin, N. Katherine Hayles, Matt Kirschenbaum, Kari Kraus, Lev Manovich, Nick Montfort, Janet H. Murray, Jason Rhody, Marc Ruppel, Jill Walker, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and the bloggers at Grand Text Auto, to name a few.]

Wagons, ho! All aboard!

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lemuel pitkin 04.13.05 at 10:17 am

Henry, Timothy and others,

Do you genuinely beleive that the source of a project’s funding is just a non-issue? If an avowedly right-wing organization, which mostly gives money to causes you find reprehensible, decides to give you money, does that say anything about you? Or is it not even a subject for discussion?

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pedro 04.13.05 at 10:34 am

“…that it helps us to understand how culture and society work”

Sure, that’s one thing the historicist turn does. What does the appreciative folks produce? Aesthetic prescriptions? Universal explanations of the generation of beauty? Or am I not qualified to ask, simply because, from a distance, “appreciative scholarship” sounds to me very close to the elevation of high-school civics nonsense to the status of political theory. From a strictly intellectual perspective, it seems clear to me that it is the ‘appreciative’ folks who are in desperate need to make a case for what they do, not the people who are trying to engage with actual, recognizable intellectual problems, like the emergence of the canon, the history of the concept of ‘race’, the problem of agency, the relationship between literature and the wider culture, etc.

The betterment of the self? Do they claim they can actually say something interesting about how I can better myself through the reading of particular “authors” they seem to have identified as uplifting in some metaphysical sort of way? I’m sorry. Can you explain just what does the ‘appreciative turn’ do that is of intellectual value? I’ll try to stay very open-minded, but it is obvious to me that a case has to be made against identifying this so-called appreciative turn with cultural conservatism.

Why is it that English scholars always have to deal with people telling them what they ought to be doing? I’m never told by non-mathematicians that I ought to abandon infinite-dimensional Banach spaces. Why is it that English scholars are constantly “reminded” that their field is not as specialize, nor as difficult, as other fields? Why is it that the idea of replacing a canon of literary texts with one of techniques of analysis (which is the proper thing to do; after all, that’s what disciplines do: nobody reads Newton in my line of work… we learn analysis) is so very threatening to people? Is it because their socio-cultural status is at stake? Is it because they are anxious about English scholars not playing their proper role of guardians of a “cultural heritage” well? (Needless to say, a cultural heritage that serves the interests and elevates the status of high-brow intellectuals in other academics.) Why is it that people who are othewise sociologically sophisticated, view with displeasure the idea of studying non-canonical texts, non-literary texts? Why is it that they demand an explanation of the purpose and usefulness of mapping out the history of discourses of inclusion and exclusion?

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Doug 04.13.05 at 10:47 am

Doug writes, … Imagine what kind of a reaction I’d get if I wrote: … gzombie

My first comment was a response to what I thought was an honest inquiry about political science professors’ interest in public reception of their work.

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John Emerson 04.13.05 at 10:53 am

There’s more exclusivity to theory than just electronic gatekeepers. Sometimes it seems that all of the interlocutors are competing to say things that the others cannot either understand or respond to. If you don’t want to play that game, you might as well leave. As far as I can tell, Lacan is the big villain.

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GZombie 04.13.05 at 10:57 am

Doug writes, “My first comment was a response to what I thought was an honest inquiry about political science professors’ interest in public reception of their work.”

And I took your response as an honest answer. I didn’t mean to be oblique: I should have said, “English professors would be ridiculed if they said that they hope what they do has an effect upon readers and authors.”

John Emerson writes, “There’s more exclusivity to theory than just electronic gatekeepers.”

We’re not talking about theory.

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pedro 04.13.05 at 11:01 am

John Emerson: I’m aware of your personal beef with the state of philosophy departments. But I don’t think it is fair for people to dismiss analytical philosophy because it doesn’t do what Dewey did. It’s rather unfortunate that there is so little room for pursuing the kind of philosophy you like nowadays. But how does that constitute an indictment of Kripke’s philosophy?

Gzombie is right that one needs to know a bit more about a subject matter before engagin in a tete-a-tete conversation about the ills of an intellectual program.

Above it is obvious that I have a lot of skpeticism for an ‘appreciative’ program of literary studies. But then again, I’m not qualified to judge just yet. I can only ask questions. (True, my questions may be colored by prejudice, but what can I do? I’m human.)

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vika zafrin 04.13.05 at 11:22 am

…wow.

I stopped reading CT a while ago, at least a year, and have been pointed here by posts in GZombie’s journal — so there’s my explicitly stated bias.

(Another bias of mine is against equating literary studies with English departments. But then, I come from an Italian studies background.)

One thing in particular struck me:

What does expertise in literary criticism in its expert form, as described by gzombie, deliver to the world? Why is it necessary?

Leaving aside the difference (mostly socio-semantic [an invented term]) between literary criticism and literary studies, the answer that seems obvious to me is:

We study literature – that is, read it in depth and from many different perspectives – because we want to understand our minds and hearts and evolution as a species. Because we want to know ourselves.

Another striking thing is the distinction commenters have made between literature and other fields of inquiry, humanities or not. We tend to take for granted the divisions among these fields, but they are artificial. What is the big deal if “historicism” “seeps” into literary studies?

It also seems to me that Henry’s criticisms are based on an inadequate knowledge of the field(s) of literary studies. I hold this opinion independently of any other commenter. But if Henry – or someone else on CT – does expand the discussion a bit by including more contemporary work into the set of data under consideration, I’d be most curious to read it.

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Timothy Burke 04.13.05 at 12:06 pm

Pedro:

I agree that anyone who wants to describe the practice, theory, ideals of an “appreciative” literary criticism has some heavy lifting to do. For myself, I don’t see any reason why one form of historicism can’t coexist with other kinds of interpretative work, even the cultivation of the self.

But as to your last point, I’d suggest that English professors have to deal with other people telling them what to do because that’s the nature (or ought to be the nature) of scholarship in the humanities: broadly communicative, outward-looking, accessible. Because I’d suggest that the role of the humanities scholar is first to serve as a guide, a teacher, a minister in the cathedral of culture, not as the creator of specialized knowledge. That’s not to say that erudition is not necessary, that any guy off the street can serve that role as a guide: there are a lot of skills and knowledge that go into it, just as a religious guide needs to know his Scripture. But to some extent, the job here in my mind is to increasingly put that erudition in service to something other than the production of more erudition. And I’m sorry, but that’s just different than much of the work of the sciences. Or it ought to be.

I also think you take it for granted that the historicist mode of literary criticism is clear about the purposes of many of the projects on gzombie’s list. But as in any discipline (including my own) we often inherit modes and norms of doing scholarship, of defining what scholarship is and ought to be, that we scarcely question or understand the genesis of. Why, for example, do we need to continue to investigate processes of canon formation? What is it that made the canon an urgent question, and is it still just as urgent? Is it really so difficult to explain to non-scholars (or scholars in other disciplines) why canon formation should be the subject of an ongoing project of research, and what the utility of the knowledge that research produces might be? What changes once we have that knowledge (the we here being some set larger than ‘professors in English departments’) There are great answers to all those questions to be found in various layerings of academic literary criticism, but I’d suggest than in many cases, the latest layers often reflect an institutionalization of this or many other research projects where the raison d’etre of it has begun to retreat from view. What reinvigorates programs of disciplinary research? Sometimes questions from within the discipline–but sometimes also challenges from outside of it.

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pedro 04.13.05 at 12:32 pm

I appreciate your thoughtful response, Tim. I’ll have to think about your points. It seems that, as an outsider, I may have a somewhat parochial conception of what the humanities ought to be doing, informed by what goes on in the sciences. The production of specialized knowledge doesn’t bother me in in the least bit, for example. I am more bothered by the role of “minister in the cathedral of culture” (high-culture, that is) that humanities scholars often fill (and according to conservative critics of the academy, ought to fill in a culturally conservative way).

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john c. halasz 04.13.05 at 1:12 pm

I rather liked Gzombie’s list and think that’s the sort of stuff y’all should be doing. Much of the objection of outsiders stems from stereotypes of the self-referential obscure-rant-ism of the wave of post-structuralist “Theory” that took hold two or three decades ago, and it’s good to see that at least some have gotten that out of their “system”. But might I suggest an additional topic for the list, though it might be considered redundant to the prior ennumerated items: how does literary “value” get valorized? That might, at least, connect up with the sort of concern being expressed here as to how literature/literary studies connects up with a broader audience- (Hey! That’s me! Hi, Mom!)- and the consideration of what- mediated- ethico-political significance literature might have. At least, that’s the view of this bleacher-bum.

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Rob Barrett 04.13.05 at 1:36 pm

Timothy–

It should be pointed out that many of us in English departments are indeed creators of specialized knowledges. I.e., those of us working in early periods. As a medievalist, I necessarily make use of methodologies–codicology, paleography–and languges–Latin, Middle English, Old English–that make my research opaque to interested laypersons and to interested scholars outside English departments (and, it should be noted, quite often to interested scholars within English departments).

I recognize the wisdom of what you’re saying (and in fact think the Valve is a great site, regardless of where some of the cash comes from), but I don’t see why English professors have to prioritize professional duties in the way you propose: why can’t I be a guide at the same time that I’m recovering things from the archive and presenting them to my fellow specialists? Why does the writing I do for the latter group have to be transparent for non-academics?

Teaching seems to be missing from this discussion. We English professors do a lot of communicating with layfolk–in the classroom. And that discussion includes appreciation and formalism right alongside historicism, theory, politics, and a great many other things. It’s just not visible because of the emphasis the tenure system puts on original research (and here I think the hard sciences have been doing the bulk of the driving since mid-last-century–the humanities mistakenly jumped on the science bandwagon in an ill-advised attempt to justify themselves primarily as scientists). It’s also not visible because, well, I’m not about to put my lecture notes online so that non-academics can read them when I know that doing so will essentially empty my classroom.

I think that if teaching were a factor in debates like these, there’d be a greater sense of the intellectual diversity of many English professors. People would see that traditional methodologies are still practiced, that in fact the profession as described by the ALSC and the NAS bears little resemblance to the on-the-ground reality. (I’m with gzombie on this point: there’s massive continuity with pre-Theory criticism and methodology, even at the most Theory-driven departments and programs.) But we all focus on research.

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Timothy Burke 04.13.05 at 1:37 pm

John’s topic is a good one (though I think he’s right it’s redundant, or already embodied, in gzombie’s list.) But that very topic would be a good example of where I think Cultural Revolution (and maybe gzombie) are talking past the critique I see coming from the Valve and some others inside and outside of academic criticism. What I hear in that critique, to some extent, is a proposition that the answers about literary value, valorization, canon formation, the constitution of “literature” as a subject that has been offered by one mode of academic literary criticism–basically a combinatorial practice of historicism and critical theory–were too narrowly external to the text itself, that a kind of functionalism has settled into some academic literary criticism, a subtle reductionism of the interior content of literature as explanatory of its circulations, its interventions, its interpretations. That at some point to understand what literature does in the world we have to come back to what a given work of literature says, and how it says it, and to return to an understanding of the relation between a work and its audiences that accepts that such a work means some things and not others, that there are both technical and more ineffably aesthetic ways that texts work in the world and on their audiences. Academic literary critics might respond that this is what academic literary criticism already does, and they would be right–up to a point. This is not about what is done and not done in scholarly work, but about relative emphasis. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the relative emphasis in literary studies may have tilted towards understanding literature as a social artifact or tool, as an expression of structures, social relations, practices that are outside the text itself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to change that tilt, and to try and do it in part through new kinds of connections with reading publics.

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john c. halasz 04.13.05 at 1:40 pm

Might I suggest that, disguised behind the sea of texts, what professors of literature really are or ought to be are old-old-style professors of rhetoric. That would at least put to use the accumulated stores of learning, the burdgeoning topoi. Rhetoric is too much disparaged and too pervasive in the modern mind-set to go unnoticed…

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John Emerson 04.13.05 at 3:21 pm

“But how does that constitute an indictment of Kripke’s philosophy?”

Opportunity cost. Sucking up the oxygen.

And it’s not a personal beef. And the fact that you’ve heard this all before from me is not a valid criticism, if you were implying that it is.

Correction: “There’s more exclusivity to whatever it is that we’re talking about than just electronic gatekeepers.” You were passing the buck to the electronic gatekeepers. In this case, I used the wrong codeword. I’m an outsider, see, and there are always several things going on at once.

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pedro 04.13.05 at 4:05 pm

“And the fact that you’ve heard this all before from me is not a valid criticism, if you were implying that it is.”

You know, you could–if you wanted–read more charitably what others say. What I meant to say is that I sympathize with your position, that I have paid sympathetic attention to your complaints before. But frankly, *now* I feel like I should have been rude. (Heck, I should have been rude to “put up or shut up” Doug Merrill, too.)

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GZombie 04.13.05 at 4:09 pm

“You were passing the buck to the electronic gatekeepers.”

No, “passing the buck” implies someone’s to blame for something that’s gone wrong. I was explaining that, as with much writing that is produced by professionals, readers have to pay to read it, unless they go to a library, where it is free. And, of course, interlibrary loan is another route to getting materials.

I don’t think the economics of academic journals make much sense, and it would be great if all readers everywhere could access the scholarship they’re interested in for free (and there are those who are working to try to make this happen), but that’s not and has never been the world we live in. Wouldn’t it be great if you could walk out of your local bookstore with a backpack full of novels without paying? You can’t; who’s to blame? (And no passing the buck this time!)

“whatever it is that we’re talking about”

We’re talking about literary studies (or as some are referring to it, academic literary criticism). These are code words?

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John Emerson 04.13.05 at 4:33 pm

Well, the title of the thread is “Radical Literary Theory”, so I used the word “theory” in what I wrote. I guess I missed the place where the topic changed.

The fact that your denial that literary studies is exclusionary seized on a verbal slip as small as that one in order to avoid responding to what I was saying does not bode well for the proposition that literary studies are not exclusionary.

Pedro, I like rudeness better than whatever it was you gave me. To me the phrase “personal beef” is not a friendly one, but perhaps you were just being informal.

At this point I might as well dump the whole nine yards. When disciplines define themselves methodologically, there are always people who are methodologically excluded, such as myself. They normally leave the university and go on to other things, but some, such as myself, keep on reading. We are, as a rule, not happy with the state of affairs.

As far as the university is concerned, that is of no importance, because the university is a closed corporation and can ignore us. On the internet, on the other hand, the gatekeepers are not present. So here I am.

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pedro 04.13.05 at 5:33 pm

Well, of course I was being informal. Even friendly, in fact. As much as I hate to admit it *now*, I think it is a shame that many intelligent people and promising programs get methodologically excluded in the academy. I don’t have anything but sympathy for the victims of passing intellectual fashions. But I know you prefer rudeness, John. That is, you prefer rudeness to “whatever it is I was giving you”. So screw you, if that’s what you prefer.

I learend quite a bit from exchanges you’ve had in the past about the state of philosophy, and I’ve sympathized with your position, though I may not agree with your sweeping condemnations. Naturally, it hurts a bit when a person you have read charitably dismisses you and accuses you of contempt. Nothing further from the truth. But oh well: the nature of online conversations, I suppose. Even when you try really hard to avoid personal conflict, it is bound to occur. And with the most unexpected people.

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John Emerson 04.13.05 at 5:47 pm

OK, that’s better.

“I’m aware of your personal beef” didn’t sound right. Perhaps I was unnecessarily touchy. Given my position, I have to watch vigilantly for signs of condescension.

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GZombie 04.13.05 at 6:14 pm

“The fact that your denial that literary studies is exclusionary seized on a verbal slip as small as that one in order to avoid responding to what I was saying does not bode well for the proposition that literary studies are not exclusionary.”

I addressed the well-worn stereotype of literary studies as inaccessible in comment 79.

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John Holbo 04.13.05 at 7:19 pm

Well, I’ll be number 125. I’ve finally gotten around to putting my Valve post about all this up. You can come see it. (Yeesh, you must all be exhausted. Well, up up up and round the track again.)

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GZombie 04.13.05 at 7:42 pm

Yeah, I apologize for taking up so much space on someone else’s blog.

And for some reason, I had missed this from Henry in comment 10: “Why is it that you aren’t creating a competitor blog to us?”

Um, have you see this? We predate Crooked Timber, so technically that makes you guys a competitor to us!

;-)

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Doug 04.14.05 at 10:18 am

(Heck, I should have been rude to “put up or shut up” Doug Merrill, too.) pedro

You just were. Feel better about it?

Now that I’ve got the snarkiness out of my system…

T. Burke, will you be posting some version of your comments here to your blog? I know CT is a high-traffic place an all, but your thoroughness on the issues at hand deserves a more prominent place than down among 130+ comments.

I’m also glad to see that no one appears to think The Valve oughtn’t be doing what they are doing. There was some tenor of that early in the thread, but it seems to have been a misunderstanding.

Off to read J. Holbo’s piece…

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pedro 04.14.05 at 1:35 pm

Yeah, let the social scientist dictate to the scholars in the humanities what they ought to be doing, and just *how* they should be playing the role of ministers of high culture. Wonderful.

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seth edenbaum 04.14.05 at 8:49 pm

P-
Since you make literary studies sound like social science what’s the problem?

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