UPDATE: Amardeep has a long post up in response. (Since I don't have time to write part II yet, go read what he has to say.)
I'm working up a little something (but never you mind about that.) I think it might do me good to work up to it via close readings of parts of Gerald Graff's Clueless In Academe. I just realized that chapter 1 is available online . That's convenient. Let's have a little seminar, shall we? I remember Timothy Burke said he quite liked Graff's book. I don't, but I don't hate it. I think a lot of it is right, but in a sort of 'I already knew that' way. Some of it seems absurdly wrong, but in a sort of diagnostically useful way. And the man makes a few good points. I think it will be useful to discuss, especially since there may be a momentarily generous collective mood to the effect that MLA bashing has gone about as far as it can go, and then some. Let us take advantage of this spot of sunshine.
A few groundrules.
1) Let's be civil, but no need to carry it to excess. (The occasional twinkle of sarcasm and superiority is fine. No need to forego necessities.) But:
2) Don't be excessively snarky in your attacks on literary studies. (Yes, I know, I know. But only Nixon could go to China. Perhaps this is my destiny.) So:
3) Don't be absurdly thin-skinned in your defenses of literary studies. (I am linking not to accuse the post in question but to say I agree, in case that isn't perfectly obvious.)
I've basically come around to the view that what whither literary studies? studies needs most is an unusually heavy dose of utter frankness. Everyone should say what they think everything is worth, how everything presently stands, honestly. No whistling past the graveyard. No hiding the pea under the other cup. No feigning excess shock and horror. No pretending you think your opponent hates and fears the truth, or else is locked into a shame-spiral with the truth. Even if it's fun to pretend that.
It sounds naive, I know, to suggest that if everyone would just be frank we might even budge an inch. I'm not suggesting we will all turn out to agree. But as it stands the attacks tend to tip over into broken record jeremiads of the cultural apocalypse. The defenses tend to hyperventilate into ludicrously uncritical puff pieces. Putting it another way, I do feel that there is presently a sort of 'who's going to give in first?' dynamic, where 'giving in' would mean: being reasonable. Critics of literary studies are used to having their prima facie reasonable criticisms ostentatiously ignored rather than seriously debated. Defenders are used to being abused and mocked. (Not that I am saying there has been equal wrong on both sides. Just that - looking forward - it would be better to cut it all round, no matter who started it. Declare a general amnesty for past culture war crimes.)
Oh, and 4) if you want to participate, please consider reading the Graff, so as to be able to discuss. (I do hope the effect of laying down these conditions is not the sound of crickets chirping in the comment box.)
Right. Clueless In Academe.
The first difficulty concerns the title. What Graff terms 'academe' is, in fact: much of the humanities and some of the soft social sciences. And really he talks almost exclusively about what English professors do all day. 'Academe', in Graff's mouth, does not incorporate physics departments, nor even philosophy departments. By that I mean: many of the things Graff says are true about 'academe' are patently not true of philosophy departments as they actually exist. So if he actually means to be discussing us, he must not know what he's talking about. I think he just isn't really discussing our case.
Since no publisher would touch a book so un-tongue-trippingly entitled as "Clueless in much of the humanities and some of the soft social sciences" a certain amount of 'can't judge a book by its cover' scope confusion is pardonable. At any rate, if you look at the titles of books by those on the other side of the debate, you find similar slippage. John Ellis, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities; Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. As if humanities = the study of literature; as if it were reasonable to imply that everyone in the engineering department has been addled into activism by too much Foucault.
This scope problem is worth belaboring, even though it's obvious hence mostly harmless, because both sides do derive incidental rhetorical advantage from it. Without pretending Graff is the only one, let me focus on him. Without ever saying so in so many words, he ends up sounding as though he is championing the whole ivory tower against philistines - defending 'the life of the mind', as opposed to engaging in point defense on behalf of one highly idiosyncratic, local, recent manifestation of intellectual manners, i.e. stuff that has gone on mostly in English departments, mostly since about 1965. (To suggest that academia be scrapped is anti-intellectual To suggest that literary studies is a mess isn't obviously anti-intellectual.) Also, Clueless in Literary Studies, which would be a less inaccurate title, would sound hard on literary studies. It is not exactly to Graff's credit that he confesses a degree of guilt, then tries to spread it over the whole university.
Continuing to worry the title like a bone, it is noteworthy that not
just the humanities but literary studies (broadly construed to include
its penumbra of cultural studies, etc.) can be conflated with the whole
academy, even just for purposes of a snappy title. What makes this
equation tempting? How can it even seem right that one department (even with some studies programs slapped on) is the whole academy?
The first thing to say, it seems to me, is that literary studies has always been schizophrenic in self-conception. Is it right and proper for the study of English literature to be the beating heart and governing soul of the university; the jewel in the crown of the culture, even? Or is the English department just a cozy nook in which some folks are lucky enough to get paid to say what makes poems tick? Call these options imperialism and isolationism, respectively. (I think you see what I mean.)
This split is not new, certainly not something that emerges with
'theory' after about 1965. Ask F.R. Leavis why writing about Wordsworth
is worthwhile and he will tell you with a straight face, 'because
Western Civilization is worth saving from the barbarians'. Ask William
Empson and he'll say, 'because it's rather satisfying to dig
efficiently around the roots of Wordsworth's poetic appeal'. The fact
that Leavis and Empson don't write such vastly different stuff, when it
comes down to it, is a bit puzzling. How can they be so divided about
what they up to - i.e. whether it is something vast and of vital public
importance, or small and rather private? (Hint: because both of them
are really both isolationist and imperialist at heart. The split goes
all the way down.) When 'theory' makes the scene, after about 1965,
this old schizophrenia about the proper, influential scope of literary
studies is re-expressed in new idioms. And the divisions get even
murkier, maybe. Without going into all the utterly necessary detail, it
makes a sort of loose sense to equate literary studies with 'academia'
if you are an imperialist. As are almost all apologists for 'theory',
such as Graff. As is Roger Kimball, for that matter. For example,
turning everything into 'texts' and setting yourself up as an expert on
texts gets your thumb in every pie in an era in which it is less and
less believable that being a Wordsworth scholar automatically entitles
you to a thumb in every pie. On the other hand, assailing 'theory' not
just on behalf of a saner English department but on behalf of Western
Civilization and the whole Judeo-Christian tradition is equally and
oppositely imperialistic. (This is too simple, but maybe you see the
point. And I don't mean to hint that being an 'imperialist' about
literary studies is necessarily bad. I'm sorry the term has negative
connotations. It was like that when I found it. Trying to grasp and
govern as much as you can with your mind, to profit thereby, is not
self-evidently morally equivalent to trying to grasp as much as you can
with your army and navy, to economically exploit the locals; although
the spiritual attractions and satisfactions of conquest are no doubt
semi-constant across domains. Will to power and all that.)
Thus, it will feel not completely nonsensical to hint that literary studies = academe, so long as you do indeed have half a mind to let this one department proclaim in Sun Kingly tones: l'academe, c'est moi. This brings me to the second point, really an aspect of the first: the explosion of 'theory' after 1965 is both a novel expression of this older, imperial sensibility on the part of literary studies, and a vital support for it. 'Theory' makes the questionable equation seem less insecure by generating an enormous volume of novel intellectual forms (never mind for the moment what they are worth) that really do sprawl at least across all humanities and social sciences, even unto the shores of the natural sciences. Literary studies = the study of texts; texts = everything; the study of everything = philosophy; philosophers = kings. (I am being grossly over-simple, yes.) It is no mystery how the imperial exuberance of 'theory' goes hand in hand with what we might call 'the anxiety of uninfluence'. Literary studies' expansive sense of theory-based power and privilege, post-1965, perched precariously atop an eroded confidence in the importance of its traditional power base: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. And I don't just mean: since 1965 it's been Civilization and Its Dissed Contents; flogging the dead white males for their sins. There has been enough of that sort of lively circus, no doubt, but it is possible - often actual, I should hope - to be an English professor who has great love and respect for the canonical literary tradition, yet has gnawing doubts about whether this tradition is enough to preserve the English department from shrinking in size and influence and status, turning into a sort of shabby, run-down, under-funded, unrespected backwater. I'm not saying English professors are all just status-conscious snobs. I'm saying: it's perfectly natural that literary studies sort of lurched itself into gear and made the imperial power play it did, post-1965, trying to take a lot of new territory by means of 'theory' because the old looked a bit exhausted. No one likes to die out
You might say: but it's still %$%#$%ing crazy even to hint that literary studies = academe. Yes, I wouldn't disagree, but there are a cluster of potentially reasonable thoughts hereabouts, so we shouldn't just carpet-bomb from a high altitude and fly home. You might say: higher education is properly liberal education. And some people take quite seriously the idea that the proper model for liberal education is: the stuff done in English departments, broadly speaking. So even if no sane person thinks the English department = all the departments, some possibly sane people have thought that the English department = a kind of model or paradigm or highest realization of humanistic mode and method. (No, I don't buy it either. But I don't think it's %$%#$%ing crazy. I'm just saying.)
Right. That's the title. Let's open the book.
In the Dark All Eggheads Are Gray
And here I thought only Foghorn used that term - for Miss Prissy's son, Egghead jr.
Aw, that's enough for today. Read the chapter and tell me whether you agree with what I wrote above. (And I take it back about needing to read the chapter, because you might be able to address what I wrote above without reading it.)
OK, one more point. I said above that Graff is obviously not including philosophy departments in this big tent called 'academe'. That was rather provocative. Here's evidence:
For American students to do better—all of them, not just twenty percent—they need to know that summarizing and making arguments is the name of the game in academia. But it’s precisely this game that academia obscures, generally by hiding it in plain view amidst a vast disconnected clutter of subjects, disciplines, and courses. The sheer cognitive overload represented by the American curriculum prevents most students from detecting and then learning the moves of the underlying argument game that gives coherence to it all.
The college curriculum says to students, in effect, “Come and get it, but you’re on your own as to what to make of it all.” As John Gardner has rightly observed, American colleges “operate under the assumption that students know how to do it—or if they don’t they’ll flunk out and it’s their problem.” And colleges play hard to get not only with their undergraduates, but with the lower schools. The schools are easy to blame for failing to prepare students for college, and it is indeed a scandal that, aside from a few “star” schools that resemble good colleges, American high schools still don’t see it as their mission to prepare all their students for college, even though everybody now agrees that college is a virtual prerequisite for success and a decent life. But it is the failure of higher education to clarify its culture of ideas and arguments that leaves the schools unable to prepare their students for college. The mystification of academic culture trickles down from the top.
Some readers will object that in claiming to know what students have to do to succeed in academia—enter the culture of ideas and arguments—I am really only revealing what they have to do to pass my course. They will say that there’s more to being educated than learning to argue, and they are right. In giving priority to ideas and arguments, however, I don’t minimize the importance of qualities that can’t be reduced to pure rationality—emotional intelligence, moral character, visual and aesthetic sensitivity, and creativity in storytelling and personal narrative. What I do claim is that training in these qualities will be incomplete if students are unable to translate them into persuasive public discourse. To call attention to the educational importance of visual literacy and the body you have to make arguments, not just wave pictures, do a dance, or give hugs.
Argumentation need not be a joyless, bloodless activity, and there is no necessary quarrel between arguments and narratives. Good stories make an argumentative point, and arguments gain punch from imbedded stories. Nor does privileging argumentation in the curriculum necessarily represent the ethnocentric or racist bias that some make it out to be. On the contrary, since effective argument starts with attentive listening, training in argument is central to multicultural understanding and respect for otherness. Respecting cultures different from your own means summarizing others’ arguments accurately, putting yourself in their shoes. After September 11 it is all the more crucial that Americans learn to understand the arguments of those who would destroy us, and that the world learn to fight with words rather than with guns and bombs.
Now to a quite profound degree this does not fit what goes on in philosophy. We can get at the profundity by starting with the relatively trivial but strictly dispositive consideration that we philosophy professors are forever cramming argumentation down throats in the most explicit fashion - arguably, we do it with ludicrous over-explicitness. We require logic and teach fallacies and generally throw around lots of terms: premise, conclusion, valid, sound, deductive, inductive, abductive, argument to the best explanation, argument by analogy, proof by example, reductio ad absurdum, so forth. I am never quite sure whether this is pedagogically optimal. It might be better just to give people papers that contain arguments and shout at the poor recruits: take this apart, clean it, and reassemble it in four pages or less! Hup-hup-hup! Then shout at them more when they do it badly until they stop doing it badly. No doubt the optimal method of teaching argumentation varies student by student and teacher by teacher.
I remember Matthew Yglesias had a post way back about how it took him the longest time to really figure out how you went about coming up with these things - arguments - that are supposed to populate these paper things you write. Brian Weatherson had a rather nice post in response (it gives you the gist of the original, which was lost on the great whatever happened to Matt's blog before he moved to TypePad Catastrophe of '04). Brian tries to give fatherly advice to youth. The general consensus is that there is indeed a certain ineffable 'how you ride a bike' quality to doing good argument. That said, what Graff says just profoundly does not fit with the culture of academic philosophy, where everyone knows from day 1 it is officially an argument culture, and everyone has been issued some stock instructions and equipment, even if they haven't quite figured out which end the bullets come out of; and there really are more or less agreed-upon standards about what is and isn't an argument. When someone says something and someone asks 'was that an argument?' everyone in the room either nods 'yes' or shakes their heads 'no'.
Now in literary studies it really doesn't work this way. It isn't nearly as clear. Graff is right about that much. And for today I'll leave it at that except to add as a very final note that I don't mean this observation about the difference between philosophy and literary studies to sound as superior as it no doubt sounds. I write quite a bit of amateur practical literary criticism on this here blog, and I think it is less argumentative - in the sense of 'argumentative' I have come to know and recognize from being a philosopher - than the philosophy I do. When I 'do literary criticism' I make what seem to me effective arrangements of what I take to be my insights. I put similar things, and different things, side by side, for folks to see what I am seeing. That's not really a very standard sort of argument, although of course I am trying to show something, make readers come around to my way of thinking. There's more to it, and sometimes I make quite standard arguments. I don't think my literary criticism is less valuable or less interesting than my philosophy. In a lot of ways I find it more satisfying and personally fulfilling to write. But trying to transmogrify literary criticism culture into argument culture is rather problematic. As Graff acknowledges. Maybe I'll talk about it later.