April 21, 2018


Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem: Dismayed about American politics? Look in the mirror (Eric Bennett, APRIL 13, 2018, tHE cHRONICLE rEVIEW)

Three generations ago, literature professors exchanged a rigorously defined sphere of expertise, to which they could speak with authority, for a much wider field to which they could speak with virtually no power at all. No longer refusing to allow politics to corrupt a human activity that transcends it, they reduced the literary to the political. The change was sharp. From World War I until the 1960s, their forerunners had theorized literature as a distinct practice, a fine art, a realm of its own. Whether in the scholarship of the Russian Formalists, in T.S. Eliot's archconservative essays, or in such midcentury monuments as Erich Auerbach's Mimesis (1946), René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1948), and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), literature was considered autonomous.

Then, starting in the 1970s, autonomy became a custom honored only in the breach. Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were first among countless equals who argued that pure art was pure politics. In 1985, Jane Tompkins laid out what many scholars increasingly believed about the whole field -- that "works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position." Porous boundaries, fluid categories, and demoted reputations redefined classic texts.

Beauty became ideology; poetry, a trick of power, no more essentially valuable than other such tricks -- sitcoms, campaign slogans, magazine ads -- and no less subject to critique. The focus of the discipline shifted toward the local, the little, the recent, and the demotic. "I find no contradiction in my writing about Henry James, bodybuilding, heavy metal, religion, and psychoanalytic theory," Marcia Ian stated in PMLA in 1997. In Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres (1990), Harriet Hawkins argued that much pop culture "has in practice ... been a great deal more democratic and far less elitist, even as it has often been demonstrably less sexist than the academically closeted critical tradition." Within the bosky purlieus of a declining humanism, everything had become fair game for study: Madonna and Lost, Harry Potter and Mad Men.

The demographic exclusivity of the midcentury canon sanctified the insurrection. Who didn't feel righteous tossing Hawthorne on the bonfire? So many dead white men became so much majestic smoke. But now, decades later, the flames have dwindled to coals that warm the fingers of fewer and fewer majors. The midcentury ideal -- of literature as an aesthetically and philosophically complex activity, and of criticism as its engaged and admiring decoding -- is gone. In its place stands the idea that our capacity to shape our protean selves is the capacity most worth exercising, the thing to be defended at all costs, and the good that a literary inclination best serves.

Democratizing the canon did not have to mean abdicating authority over it, but this was how it played out. In PMLA in 1997 Lily Phillips celebrated a new dispensation in which "the interpreter is not automatically placed above either producers of texts or participants in events but is acknowledged as another subject involved in a cultural practice, with just as much or as little agency." This new dispensation -- cultural studies -- "emerged forcefully because the awareness of positionality, context, and difference is endemic to this historical period."

Having eaten the tail of the canonical beast they rode on, scholars devoured their own coccyges. To profess the humanities was to clarify one's situatedness, one's limited but crucial perspective, one's opinion and its contingent grounds. Yet if "opinion is always contingent," Louis Menand asked laconically, "why should we subsidize professionals to produce it?"

By the 1990s, many scholars equated expertise with power and power with oppression and malicious advantage. The humane gesture was not to fight on behalf of the humanities -- not to seek standing -- but rather to demonstrate that literary studies no longer posed a threat. Unmaking itself as a discipline, it could subtract at least one instance of ideological violence from the nation and world.

If the political events of 2016 proved anything, it's that our interventions have been toothless. The utopian clap in the cloistered air of the professional conference loses all thunder on a city street. Literature professors have affected America more by sleeping in its downtown hotels and eating in its fast-food restaurants than by telling one another where real prospects for freedom lay. Ten thousand political radicals, in town for the weekend, spend money no differently than ten thousand insurance agents.

Now that we have a culture of higher education in which business studies dominate; now that we face legislatures blind to the value of the liberal arts; now that we behold in the toxic briskness of the four-hour news cycle a president and party that share our disregard for expertise while making a travesty of our aversion to power, the consequences of our disavowal of expertise are becoming clear. The liquidation of literary authority partakes of a climate in which all expertise has been liquidated. In such a climate, nothing stands against demagoguery. What could?

This strikes us as completely backwards.  In the Anglosphere--with its universal literacy--literature is open to and consumed by everyone and a canon emerged naturally, composed of the very best of Western literature.  It inevitably includes the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne because he was both a great writer and his themes were eternal.

In order to "replace" such achievements--which were mainly, but certainly not exclusively, the product of white Christian men--with the works of authors who are obviously not selected for the quality of their work but for their identities, requires an assertion on the part of intellectuals that a certain expertise allows them to discern value in books that the rest of us find execrable.

This is where the actual guilt of the humanities profs lies: the elevation of pure identity over the quality of ideas and expression.

Even setting aside the fact that it is true, as Mr. Bennett suggests, that modern humanities is an extended attack on whiteness, maleness, straightness, Christianity, etc., making it impossible for any thoughtful human to listen to these ideologues, it also contributed to, and justified in their own minds, the adoption of ideological identitarianism by the very worst sorts of white males, who Donald Trump appeals to.

When Mr. Bennett's colleagues look in the mirror they see the Cheeto Jesus, because the Right is the Left, having shunned character in favor of identity.

Posted by at April 21, 2018 6:05 AM