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Friday, July 20, 2018

The Decline and Fall of Literature

The Decline and Fall of Literature | by Andrew Delbanco | The New York Review of Books
(from 1999)

"It has become a holiday ritual for The New York Times to run a derisory article in deadpan Times style about the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, where thousands of English professors assemble just before the new year. Lately it has become impossible to say with confidence whether such topics as “Eat Me; Captain Cook and the Ingestion of the Other” or “The Semiotics of Sinatra” are parodies of what goes on there or serious presentations by credentialed scholars.

At one recent English lecture, the speaker discussed a pornographic “performance artist” who, for a small surcharge to the price of admission to her stage show, distributes flashlights to anyone in the audience wishing to give her a speculum exam. By looking down at the mirror at just the right angle, she is able, she says, to see her own cervix reflected in the pupil of the beholder, and thereby (according to the lecturer) to fulfill the old Romantic dream of eradicating the distinction between perceiver and perceived. The lecturer had a winning phrase—“the invaginated eyeball”—for this accomplishment. During the discussion that followed, a consensus emerged that, in light of the optical trick, standard accounts (Erwin Panofsky’s was mentioned) of perspective as a constitutive element in Western visual consciousness need to be revised.

As English departments have become places where mass culture—movies, television, music videos, along with advertising, cartoons, pornography, and performance art—is studied side by side with literary classics, it has not been easy for the old-style department to adjust. The novelist Richard Russo captures the mood of such a department trying to come to terms with a (rather tame) new appointee named Campbell Wheemer, who “wore what remained of his thinning hair in a ponytail secured by a rubber band,” and who

startled his colleagues by announcing at the first department gathering of the year that he had no interest in literature per se. Feminist critical theory and image-oriented culture were his particular academic interests. He taped television sitcoms and introduced them into the curriculum in place of phallocentric, symbol-oriented texts (books). His students were not permitted to write. Their semester projects were to be done with video cameras and handed in on cassette. In department meetings, whenever a masculine pronoun was used, Campbell Wheemer corrected the speaker, saying, “Or she.”…Lately, everyone in the department had come to refer to him as Orshee.

... Bickering, backbiting, generational rift are not new, but something else is new. Outside the university, one hears a growing outcry of “Enough!” (it takes many forms, including a number of Bad Writing contests, in which English professors are routinely awarded top prizes), while within the field, the current president of the Modern Language Association, Edward Said, has caused a stir by lamenting the “disappearance of literature itself from the…curriculum” and denouncing the “fragmented, jargonized subjects” that have replaced it...

Almost from the start there have been periodic announcements from a distinguished roster of Jeremiahs that liberal education, with literary studies at its core, is decadent or dying. In 1925, John Jay Chapman looked at American higher education and, finding Greek and Latin classics on the wane, proclaimed “the disappearance of the educated man.”...

The decline in humanities students relative to other fields reflects the fact that the postwar expansion took place especially in the previously underemphasized fields of science and technology. With increased access to college for many students whose social and economic circumstances would once have excluded them, vocational fields such as business, economics, engineering, and, most recently, computer programming have also burgeoned. Moreover, as the historian Lynn Hunt points out, the average age of American undergraduates has risen sharply in recent years, and older students tend to pursue subjects that have practical value for finding a job.

But it is also true that many “traditional” students (the new term for those who used to be referred to as “college age”) are turning away from literature in particular and from the humanities in general already in high school...

Literature is a field whose constituency and resources are shrinking while its subject is expanding. Even as English loses what budget-conscious deans like to call “market share,” it has become routine to find notices in the department advertising lectures on such topics as the evolution of Batman from comic-book crusader to camp TV star to macho movie hero alongside posters for a Shakespeare conference.

This turn to “cultural studies,” which has not been much deterred by any fear of trivialization or dilettantism, means that English studies now venture with callow confidence into the interpretation of visual, legal, and even scientific “texts.” As the young critic Michael Bérubé reports, “English has become an intellectual locus where people can study the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from a Christian perspective, the text of the O.J. trial from a Foucauldian perspective, and the text of the Treaty of Versailles from a Marxist perspective.”...

Literary studies, in fact, have their roots in religion. Trilling understood this when he remarked, in his gloomy essay about the future of the humanities, that “the educated person” had traditionally been conceived as

an initiate who began as a postulant, passed to a higher level of experience, and became worthy of admission into the company of those who are thought to have transcended the mental darkness and inertia in which they were previously immersed.

Such a view of education as illumination and deliverance following what Trilling called “exigent experience” is entirely Emersonian. It has little to do with the positivist idea of education to which the modern research university is chiefly devoted—learning “how to extend, even by minute accretions, the realm of knowledge.” This corporate notion of knowledge as a growing sum of discoveries no longer in need of rediscovery once they are recorded, and transmittable to those whose ambition it is to add to them, is a great achievement of our civilization. But except in a very limited sense, it is not the kind of knowledge that is at stake in a literary education.

... the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, in a broadside published in 1887 in the London Times:

There are many things fit for a man’s personal study, which are not fit for University examinations. One of these is “literature.”…[We are told] that it “cultivates the taste, educates the sympathies, enlarges the mind.” Excellent results against which no one has a word to say. Only we cannot examine in tastes and sympathies.

English, in other words, amounted to nothing more than “chatter about Shelley.”...

Kernan tells how, as a student at Oxford after the war, he was trying without much success to master the history of the English language until his tutor took pity on him and advised, “When you hit a word in a text that you cannot identify, simply correlate it with some modern word that it sounds like and then invent a bridge between them. Most of the examiners will be suspicious, but may consider, so imprecise is linguistic science, your little word history an interesting possibility.”...

The idea that reading can be a revelatory experience stretches back in its specifically Christian form at least to Saint Augustine, who wrote of being “dissociated from myself” until he heard a child’s voice beckoning him to open the Gospels, “repeating over and over, ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.”‘...

Something like faith in the transforming power of literature is surely requisite for the teacher who would teach with passion and conviction...

This large assertion links aesthetic response with moral (or what Kernan prefers to call “existential”) knowledge, and even with the imperative to take reformist action in the world...

The sad news is that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and in themselves. “We are in trouble,” as Scholes puts it, “precisely because we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that we cannot make truth claims but must go on ‘professing’ just the same.” But what kind of dubious “truth-claims” does literature make? Literature does not embody, as both outraged conservatives and radical debunkers would have it, putatively eternal values that its professors are sworn to defend. It does not transmit moral certainty so much as record moral conflict. Its only unchanging “truth-claim” is that experience demands self-questioning...

In acknowledging what every true writer knows—that words are never quite governable by the will of the author—the New Critics were planting seeds of future trouble for English studies. Paul de Man, who introduced the deconstructionist theory of Jacques Derrida to American readers after the New Criticism had become a received orthodoxy, detected in the New Critics a “foreknowledge” of what he called, borrowing a phrase from the Swiss critic Georges Poulet, “hermeneutic circularity.”...

Captain Ahab’s second mate on the Pequod, Mr. Stubb, had pretty much summed it up a long time before: “Book!…you’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.”

Deconstruction fit the darkening mood of the Seventies, when all claims to timeless or universal truth became suspect as self-serving deceptions perpetrated by wielders of power. It was an effort, as we used to say, to heighten the contradictions and raise them to the level of consciousness. Along with its offshoot, “reader-response” criticism, it was a mischievously extreme skepticism that regarded all meanings and judgments as contingent on the “subject-position” of the reader...

One of the implications was that literature was no more or less worthy of study than any other semiotic system; fashion, gestures, sports could now serve as a “text” for the game of interpretation. But this view soon lost its playfulness, and turned into the dogma that literature, like any constructed system of meaning, must be assessed in relation to this or that “identity” (race, class, gender, etc.) to the exclusion of every other point of view. Here began in earnest the fragmentation of literary studies that is so evident today—and that has left a legacy of acrimony, and of intellectual and professional fatigue.

Deconstruction can also be seen as simply another phase in the continuing effort by literary studies to get respect from “hard” disciplines by deploying a specialized vocabulary of its own. Long before its rise, in an essay entitled “The Meaning of a Literary Idea” (1949), Trilling had remarked that “people will eventually be unable to say, ‘They fell in love and married,’ let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”‘ Trilling’s parody of the Freud fad of his day was intended to illustrate how “ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology,” and by ideology he meant

the habit or ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.

Today’s rendition, to which the requisite dash of Gramsci and sprinkle of Foucault (among the biggest post-deconstruction influences on literary studies) are added, would go something like this: “Privileging each other as objects of heterosexual desire, they signified their withdrawal from the sexual marketplace by valorizing the marital contract as an instrument of bourgeois hegemony.” Who knows what tomorrow will bring?...

Why has this happened? Was there some singular force behind the multiple events that Scholes sums up as the “fall of English”?

In Literature Lost, the shrillest of recent books on the crisis, John Ellis blames the whole mess on the dynamics of professionalization—on, that is, the pressure to publish something, anything, that is novel or startling or upon which a reputation can be built. The publish-or-perish desperation has only increased as the readership for what is published declines. “This is rather like the Irish elk syndrome,” Ellis says, by which “competition for dominance within the species led to the evolution of ever larger antlers, but the larger antlers caused the species as a whole to become dysfunctional and dragged it down.”...

The process of changing the assump-tions of literary studies began in the late 1950s under the name “structuralism”—a technique by which culture was analyzed as a collection of codes and rituals denoting tribal boundaries that protect against transgression by a threatening “other.” Words like “high” and “low” (along with other evaluative terms such as “primitive” and “advanced,” or “savage” and “civilized”) acquired obligatory quotation marks, and literature, in effect, became a branch of anthropology. By the 1970s, leading figures in literary studies were calling into question even the residual aspiration to positive knowledge that structuralism expressed. “A literary text,” de Man wrote in 1970, is so dependent on changing interpretation that it “is not a phenomenal event that can be granted any form of positive existence, whether as a fact of nature or as an act of the mind.” Nor could literature any longer be understood, on the model of religion, as a body of inspired writings with discernible meanings. “It leads,” de Man declared, “to no transcendental perception, intuition, or knowledge….” The very subject—literature—that gave the English department its claim on the university was now revealed to be a mystifying name assigned to texts so designated by those with the power to impose their tastes on impressionable readers.

Under these “postmodern” conditions, what was left for English professors to believe and do? The point of writing and teaching was now less to illuminate literary works than to mount a performance in which the critic, not the instigating work, was the main player. The idea of rightness or wrongness in any reading (“there is no room,” de Man wrote, “for…notions of accuracy and identity in the shifting world of interpretation”) was rendered incoherent...

English has become, as Louis Menand says (following a suggestion from David Bromwich) in What’s Happened to the Humanities?, “‘hard’ and ironic at the same time,” emphasizing “theoretical rigor and simultaneously debunk[ing] all claims to objective knowledge”—an inner conflict that has proven costly to its standing in the modern university. It will never be able to submit its hypotheses to the scientific test of replicable results, and it can never be evaluated according to some ratio between the cost of the service it provides and the market value of its results. It has reached a point of diminishing returns in proportion to the scale of its operation: the texts of the major writers have been established; the facts of their biographies are mostly known. And while old works will always attract new interpretations from new readers, and the canon will continue to expand with the discovery of overlooked writers—a process that has accelerated enormously over the last twenty-five years with the entrance into the profession of women and minorities—the growth of English departments at anything like its former pace cannot be justified on the grounds that literary “research” continues to produce invaluable new knowledge.

Yet even as they lose respect in-side universities, English departments are still refurbishing themselves as factories of theories and subfields. All of these—feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial studies, the New Historicism (which acquired its name when Stephen Greenblatt used a phrase that proved infectious, but that he never intended as a big claim for novelty), and, most recently, “eco-criticism”—are yielding some work that illuminates aspects of literature to which previous critics had been closed and that merits the Arnoldian description, “fresh and free thought.” But much of the new theory is tendentious or obscure, and the imperative to make one’s mark as a theoretical innovator has created what John Guillory calls a “feedback loop”: “The more time devoted…to…graduate teaching or research, the more competition for the rewards of promotion and tenure… [and] the more pressure to withdraw from labor-intensive lower-division teaching.” Despite the job shortage, the prestige of graduate teaching rises at the expense of undergraduate teaching, and English departments thereby cut themselves off from the best reason for their continued existence: eager undergraduate readers...

Disputes that once seemed vitally important have settled into a family quarrel about which no one outside the household any longer cares...

Woodring describes the situation as “a seriocomic scenario in which sodden firefighters spray water on each other while the house burns down.” If the humanities are in danger of becoming a sideshow in the university, it is we the humanists who, more than demographic changes or the general cultural shift toward science, are endangering ourselves.

The field of English has become, to use a term given currency twenty-five years ago by the redoubtable Stanley Fish, a “self-consuming artifact.” On the one hand, it has lost the capacity to put forward persuasive judgments; on the other hand, it is stuffed with dogma and dogmatists. It has paid overdue attention to minority writers, but, as Lynn Hunt notes in her essay in What’s Happened to the Humanities?, it (along with the humanities in general) has failed to attract many minority students. It regards the idea of progress as a pernicious myth, but never have there been so many critics so sure that they represent so much progress over their predecessors. It distrusts science, but it yearns to be scientific—as attested by the notorious recent “Sokal hoax,” in which a physicist submitted a deliberately fraudulent article full of pseudoscientific gibberish to a leading cultural-studies journal, which promptly published it. It denounces the mass media for pandering to the public with pitches and slogans, but it cannot get enough of mass culture. The louder it cries about the high political stakes in its own squabbles, the less connection it maintains to anything resembling real politics. And by failing to promote literature as a means by which students may become aware of their unexamined assumptions and glimpse worlds different from their own, the self-consciously radical English department has become a force for conservatism.

English, in short, has come to reflect some of the worst aspects of our culture: obsessing about sex, posturing about real social inequities while leaving them unredressed, and participating with gusto in the love/hate cult of celebrities. (At the conventions these days, resentment is palpable, as celebrities hold forth before colleagues frightened about their chances of getting a job or keeping the one they have.) English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase—a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions.

In what is perhaps the largest irony of all, the teaching of English has been penetrated, even saturated, by the market mentality it decries. The theory factory (yesterday’s theory is deficient, today’s is new and improved) has become expert in planned obsolescence"
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