« The Intentional Fallacy? | Main | Oh, oh, all the robots an tied-up ladies! »

January 12, 2005


Rich Puchalsky

I like the puffer fish analogy. I was a bit puzzled by Gerald Graff's response to my suggestion that if incoming students didn't know that academia had a culture of argument, then make them take an introductory course that tells them that there is an academic culture of argument and assume that anyone who couldn't get it after one course didn't belong in the humanities anyway. His response was:

"To Rich: Please check the book, where I do spend most of my time on what you call "remedial" problems."

Why are they qualified as being what *I* call remedial problems? They can only not be remedial problems if what Graff means by argument is a lot broader than what I mean by argument. Sounds like the fallacy of equivocation.

I'll go into more detail. I admit that I've only read Graff's first chapter, and don't have the time/interest in reading more (posting here distracts me from my work in ways that reading a book doesn't). But what I was envisioning as "a culture of argument" could be summed up as "look, when you go to college, people will expect you to defend your reasons for believing in things. In fact, disagreeing with people and backing up your disagreement well is how you gain status. The basics of how to do it involve logic and evidence." If people haven't learned that by late high school when they know they are going to try to go to college, I think that they have a remedial education problem. The most likely reason I can think of for not calling it a remedial education problem is that by "culture of argument", you mean a lot more than what I mean above. Or maybe, as John suggests, that you don't really know what mean by argument.


I'm sure this is not the sense in which Graff or McLaughlin draws the connection, but there is a conceivable comparison between water-cooler griping and Theory with a capital T--to the extent, that is, that both involve the famed "hermeneutics of suspicion." Though Ricoeur (?) coined the phrase to describe Marx and Freud, it may apply still better to the populist inclination to doubt the legitimacy of any perspective but one's own and to dismiss the thought that arguments and evidence might enable discrimination among rival claims. It's this parallel, I think, more than just the idea of small-t theory as thinking in general that leads populist Theory heads to embrace subcultures and conspiracy theorists as practicing what they sometimes call low theory. I think of this as academia's X-Files moment. (To be conspiratorial, the program, if you remember it, starred a former Yale English grad student.)

To arbitarily piggyback some comments I never made to entry one of Clueless in Academe, I think this is in fact not unconnected to the profound ambivalence about academicism at the core of literary study. I never answered Rich's fair point that every discipline is expected at some level to be able to make its concerns clear to the public. I still think this isn't completely true (when you think of disciplines like, say, Math). But I see the point. Still, English and, to a lesser degree, History are the only academic disciplines that are imagined to be traducing their fundamental mission when they engage in standard academic scholarship. There may be critics of philosophy who say that philosophy lost its soul when it ceased to be therapeutic or a guide to big spiritual questions, but I don't think they have a lot of traction inside or outside the field. There's no poem like Yeats's "Scholars" (bald, ignorant heads unmoved by the poetic address to beauty's ignorant ear) for biology or economics. But it's been a literary commonplace for well over a hundred years now to assume that the academic mind inevitably betrays the humanistic mission of literature. Indeed, that was one ingredient in the New Criticisms's victory over philology--which, in my view, laid the ground work for the situation in which literary study now finds itself.

Weirdly, I think, much of the sheer fluffiness of Theory is related to its late romantic sense that literature must not just be studied and argued about but a virtually spiritual experience that transforms every aspect of life. It's that view that has discredited the patient scribblers working away on Milton minutiae. I think it's also expressed in the thought that everyone is doing theory. This again is a way of seeing beauty, creativity, innovation thowing off dead husks everywhere.

For related reasons, I think Daniel Green's suggestion is quite wrong. But I think I've rambled enough.

joe o

A benefit of theory eclectism is that bit of Foucault and a dab of Marx (I am not so sure about the Zizek)never hurt anyone. Having a superficial understanding of a lot of theoretical approaches can be helpful. I think it's better for the student than say a deep theoretical understanding of freudian analysis of literature. Staying away from the single totalizing theory can be a good idea. It would have helped David Horowitz.

Giving students the tools to analyse theories like training in logic, statistics, rhetoric and composition should come first, of course. It would also be a good idea to have a lower tolerance for bullshit.


McGruff, I meant to make something like your point about hermeneutics of suspicion. Obviously this McLaughlin guy is saying not just that everyone thinks but that everyone suspects. But this is just another puffer - you see this, I think. I meant to fold this point into my follow-up, which is supposed to make the point that once you are eclectic about Theory, the only thing holding it together is a sort of shared cultural/political sensibility. Which is manifestly insufficient.


I agreed with much of what Prof. Graff had to say in the first chapter of "Clueless in Academe", but - don't we do this already?

During the first month or two of an undergraduate course, one of the most important things we have to get across to the students is that we require arguments to be presented in a certain style, which is significantly different from the style that was acceptable at school. Some of this is explicitly in the lectures, but more of it is in tutorials. When giving feedback on student's work, the supervisor will often need to explain to the student that the content of their answer was OK, but it needed to be presented differently - and the supervisor should show them how to restructure their answer. After the first term, they've usually got the hang of it, but it does need to be taught.

To me, his suggestions seem applicable to many academic disciplines. For example, he points out that you can have badly written mathematics just as easily as badly written literary criticism. (A paper that has ten pages of definitions before it explains what the author is trying to prove and why it's important is bad, even if, strictly speaking, it contains a valid proof. But undergraduates in their first term will, quite likely, not even know what constitutes a valid mathematical proof.)

On the idea of capital-T Theory as a puffer fish: isn't it more like the face-hugging monster in "Alien"? It's acidic blood means you don't dare try to kill it, and meanwhile the victim is suffocating and the acid is dissolving the floor. The arguments of (for example) Derrida or Irigaray are firmly grounded in the traditional Aristotlean framework, so that many of the moves you might make to refute them have logical consequences that are attacks on Aristotle. They are attacks on "philosophy", if by "philosophy" we mean a particular programme of work, with a particular set of methods and assumptions.


Susan, just taking your examples, my personal opinion is that Derrida and Irigaray (I know the former better than the latter) are not so deeply rooted in as all that. Taking just the case of Derrida: there is a lot of rhetoric to the effect that he is thinking logocentrism itself through, so that - yes, he would have to be a bit of a facehugger. Kill him and he takes down logocentrism so you are stuck with him on the face of philosophy. I will accept your analogy. But I think this is preposterously puffy (as in puffer fish) rhetoric. Soberly, Derrida is noodling around in semi-poetic, semi-talmudic, semi-logical, highly personal fashion with elements of the quarrel between Heidegger and Nietzsche (just to indicate the central bits). If you don't happen to find Heidegger terribly interesting - as I don't - there is really nothing obligatory about Derrida. It's non-obligatory noodling with a non-obligatory thing. Two levels of optionality, so Derrida's posturing about the 'necessity' of deconstruction just seems empty. Of course, this isn't to say that Heidegger can be brushed off. Obviously he is an important thinker. But lots of philosophy really isn't part of that whole stream of thought, broad as it may be. It's parochial to pretend otherwise.

Putting it another way, defending Theory is not the same as defending Derrida (or Irigaray). Suppose you decide that Derrida is a valuable thinker. That is not actually a good argument for engaging in the sort of entrepreneurial eclecticism that passes for Theory these days. Why should you 'do Theory' rather than narrowly defend Derrida, if Derrida is the wise one?

Putting the point yet another way, it would be extremely salutary for people to say things like 'I think Theory is good because I think the important thing to do is grapple with Heidegger's legacy in certain ways.' Then it becomes clear 1) that if you don't think Heidegger's legacy is terribly interesting, you can ignore Theory until someone convinces you to reconsider the legacy. That is, you have a clear place to start engaging the question of the value of Theory. 2) If you do think Heidegger's legacy is interesting, you can start weeding the Theory garden of things that don't address that legacy.

In short, the problem with hand-waving to the effect that 'Theory is necessary' is that it makes the actually interesting questions apparently nonsensical: why should I care about Theory? I am obviously skeptical about the value of Theory. But those who are not skeptical about the value of Theory should be just as impatient with 'Theory is necessary' disingenuousness as I am. It prevents anything interesting being said one way or the other.



Thank you ever so much for your reply! (I'm still laughing).

Well, yes.

The puffer fish may be trying to position itself somewhere where it can't be skewered without causing damage to the rest of the framework, but it might not be successful: there's usually the option of finding a counterargument that doesn't cause too much damage, or just walking away.

I'll try to be a bit more concrete. How does the institution stop people asking "How would we interpret 'Mansfield Park' if we thought that Jane Austen was a lesbian?' (This assumes that the institition deems it desirable to stop people asking this kind of question). If no-one finds the question interesting, then no-one will bother asking it. But a framework of argument that declared this kind of question to be un-askable (along the lines of George Orwell's Newspeak) might be unworkably restrictive in other ways. Can the institution declare some assumptions to be "not reasonable", and hence not permissible in argument - even in hypotheticals?

If people are determined to destabilise the traditional reading of the canon, it's difficult for the institution to deprive them of the means of argument for doing so.

I liked Graff's mention of Trekkies: is Eve Sedgwick attempting the equivalent of a Kirk/Spock fanfic, while staying within the rules of academic criticism?


Susan, if I have understood you rightly you are hinting at a line of defense for Theory that goes like this: it unsettles the terms of the debate, opening up the space to ask new questions. My reply would be: I don't believe it. I think it is not plausible to say that Theory indeed does play this role. But before I build that up, have I read you rightly?


Sorry if I was being way too obscure by jumping from Derrida to alternative readings of Jane Austen: I was thinking of "Signature - Context - Event" and the idea that the meaning of the text isn't fixed because its interpretive context isn't fixed. People worried about this long before Derrida, but the emphasis was often on reading the text in a context that was as close as possible to the "right" one - e.g. research into the historical background. Getting the context exactly "right" is most likely impossible, but we can also extract new meanings from the text by reading it in gratitously wrong contexts - and these new meanings can be of benefit to us(e.g. they're fun to read) even if they have nothing to do with with the author's original intention. Writing criticism is one way to deliberately modify the context - the reader sees the work differently after reading the criticism, even though the words of the text remain exactly the same.

Spoken language isn't immune from this process either - we can still get the wrong end of the stick when hearing someone speak.

Even if we don't use all the high Theory jargon to explain how all ths works, we can still apply the process at a practical level. It's hard for the institution to put the toothpaste back into the tube and assert its authority over the meaning of the text.

There are other examples of Derrida-esque things that can be done to texts, but that was the easiest example that came to mind.

(I wish I could put a special effect of a deflating puffer-fish into this thread - I have a mental picture of one of those inflatable toy fish with the bung taken out).

Rich Puchalsky

SusanC, I disagree with your implication that the institution really wants to "assert its authority over the meaning of the text." I think that this disagreement goes even further than John Holbo's; he characterizes your claim as that Theory "unsettles the terms of the debate, opening up the space to ask new questions" and says that it's not plausible to say that Theory plays this role, while I think that no one really needs this role to be played.

This represents a form of argument that I find just as tedious as the "puffer fish" in other contexts. One generally encounters it from creationists. When you try to explain why youth-earth creationism should not be taught alongside evolution, they will often start in about how professors all have an interest in defending established theory.

Well, they don't. Every biology professor knows that if they really found evidence to disestablish evolution or hold that the Earth is much younger than it appears to be, they'd be an academic superstar. A fundamental part of the "culture of argument" is that disagreement, if sucessfully backed up, brings status. So if someone found an alternate reading of Jane Austin as lesbian that truly brought something of value, who would object? ("Value" may be hard to define at the moment within literary studies, but that's John Holbo's point.)

Note that I don't think you can define the institution as asserting its authority over the meaning of the text whenever a professor finds a meaning for a text. That's the kind of puffer fish tautology that some Theorists seem to like.

Maybe I should call this the James Dean argument. It presupposes that there is an orthodoxy that wants to keep everyone down, so striking out in any random direction is valuable because it damages the orthodoxy. The only problem is that no one has really shown that there is an orthodoxy that functions in this way in this case.


I was afraid this moment was coming, and, alas, it’s here. Yes, I want to add two cheers for the puffer fish.

John, I’m completely on board with just about everything you say, but I want to suggest that what you now see in literary studies is, as some one like Eagleton has implicitly noted, is the last decadent stages of an academic movement and that in this respect its features, though multiplied by the institutional factors you’ve noted and some intellectual ones I’d also stress, are not distinctive either to this exact moment or perhaps to the discipline.

The reason it’s worthwhile to make that point, I think, is that, for all its current evident faults, the Theory revolution in the literary academy that began circa ’65 and picked up full steam about 15 years later did produce genuine and valuable innovation. Indeed, there was, I think, a kind of crowded-by-genius moment when a cohort of innovative intellectuals fed off each other to produce a lot of superb scholarship directly and indirectly inspired by Theory As with all exciting movements, innovation hardened into orthodoxy and imitators and acolytes ended up becoming the most prominent face of the phenomenon. That’s where we are now. The interesting thing in retrospect, I think, is that it’s relatively easy to look back and distinguish between thinkers who (for lack of a better phrase) handled their Theory with a light touch and did excellent things with it and those who were just kind of dopey and became enthusiasts or devotees.

For those who did handle it lightly, I don’t think you could often say that Theory was necessary in a logical sense—but it might have been in a developmental or institutional way. I.e., a ladder that needed to be constructed so it could be kicked away. The ladder now often seems silly because many of the premises it was used to climb to now seem widely acceptable—where that was once not the case. (To chose one example, it’s amazing to me now to see that Richard Slotkin, whose accounts of the way the myth and ideology of the frontier pervaded American popular narrative and political rhetoric are as lucidly and compellingly argued as one could hope, undergirded his arguments with vast and, yes, eclectic readings in anthropological and literary theory—though only in footnotes--just so he could make his case with credibility. I don’t think he had a profound investment in combining Marshall Sahlins, Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Northrop Frye, but he did need the legitimacy and authority they provided—in good part because he wanted to show that popular culture is culturally and aesthetically rich and politically important.)

What are the now widely accepted premises that Theory enabled? Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four:

that writers have rhetorical or pragmatic purposes and that these can be as or more significant than their expressive, or aesthetic, or conceptual intentions;

that all expressions or utterances or statements are part of larger patterns, systems, structures, or institutions that can override the distinctions between high and low art or between art and non-art;

that for various reasons the full range of the significance of any writer’s or speaker’s words is never entirely present to her conscious awareness;

and that directly and indirectly each of these issues can become self-reflexively subjects of concern to writers.

As Susan and you have suggested, you don’t really need Derrida or Foucault to arrive at these premises, but they were helpful vehicles and bludgeons when people needed them—at a time when there was in fact an obstructive and tired academic orthodoxy that made them hard to take seriously. I graduated from college twenty years ago and I can remember pretty well the stultifying effects of that orthodoxy. (For what it’s worth, I first heard of Derrida in those days not from anybody in the English dept., but from Charles Griswold, then just beginning his career and who I think would now be widely regarded as a pretty eminent philosopher. He was, by the way, also a fabulous teacher. Even if Griswold thought Jacques was wrong, he took Derrida quite seriously in those days and wrote a whole book about the phaedrus partly in response to Derrida’s account of the pharmakon.)

All of this will naturally lead to demands for examples. I could and will give more strictly academic ones if you like, but in response to the request for admirable literary critics who are able to write for a wide public and who were influenced by or sympathetic to Theory, let me quickly mention three: Denis Donoghue, Janet Malcolm, and Louis Menand. I don’t think anyone would argue that any of them are not superb readers of literature who write about it with grace and clarity and who can speak to very big publics indeed. Each of them handled their Theory with a light touch.

Finally, I want to say: Damn you, John Holbo, for so effectively enticing me from what I should be doing.

Doug M

Well put, Rich. I'd add only that it's interesting how SusanC picks "fun" as her example of Theory's benefit to us. French academics can be every bit as fatuous as Americans, but they'd never defend themselves on the basis of the "fun" they provide. They tend to be dour to the core. In America, where fun is the summum bonum, to prove that you increase it is to absolve yourself of just about anything.

(Of course, Theory is actually not fun, or fun only to those like SusanC who see it as a tool in their heroic underground quest to defeat the Institution.)

Finally, I'd just like to say "We exist" on behalf of those who see the continued expansion of science departments, and the continued defunding of English departments, as a good thing; someday, inshallah, the English departments will be disbanded entirely, and people like John will be recruited to replace them with what they should have been all along, perhaps departments of "Reading and Writing".


Not that this is a particularly novel observation, but the New Criticism was regarded by old historicists with roughly as much cheer and understanding as New Critics greeted deconstruction. And where would the Russian Formalists or Richards, for example, fit into Prof. Holbo's history of "Theory?"


Bound to happen. Someone was going to ignore John's request for civility. Congratulations, Doug. It was you.

Beleive me, no one in the academic world doubts that scientists exist--or is unaware that quite adequate funding and prestige, far outweighing anything seen by English depts, flows their way. It's not at all obvious, though, why you think departments of reading and writing would differ from English depts. Same difference. And, dollars to donuts, the same issues would arise.

Much as I respect Rich's posts, too, I have to enter a small demurrer. Yes, it's true that the culture of argument values disagreement and innovation. But it's easy to idealize this in a way that discounts other factors of institutional life that cut against it. For, it's surely also true that, even in the most contentious disciplines, received ideas, preferred hypotheses and methods, consensus, etc. have a way of getting institutionally ingrained so that, in fact, unorthodox ideas can have a hard time getting heard--or funded. That may be especially problematic in fields like literature or history where experimental evidence can't resolve clear questions. But to some degree it's a feature of every academic discipline.

Rich Puchalsky

McGruff -- I agree that institutional culture resists innovation, and that it's more difficult to overcome this in fields, unlike the sciences, where you can't make testable predictions and then say "I told you so" when they pan out.

But in some historical periods one factor is stronger than the other. Really, I think that all I'm doing is restating ideas that John Holbo already stated more allusively or wittily. Remember the previous post where he wrote: "But excessive bardolatry, attachment to the traditional Canon, etc. has hardly been the source of all the mockery for the MLA. (Those damn English profs. They're too traditionalist and unwilling to consider radical new subversive perspectives from the margins.)" If English departments ever once could justify Theory through the James Dean argument that they need it to overcome institutional resistance to innovation, they certainly can't now.

(Stating things wittily is fun, of course, but I do think that there's a certain value in the social role I've assumed in this thread -- the naive, blundering "outsider critic" (in the sense of "outsider artist") who seems to think that everything should be as it is in the sciences and needs everything to be spelled out. Less fun sometimes equals more clarity -- another of the things JH wrote at the start of the thread.)

DougM -- You went wrong with the "those like SusanC" part of your post with regard to civility. But I should add that while fun isn't the only source of benefit, it certainly is one of the possible sources of benefit. (Though maybe not in an academic sense. We're getting back to the question of the definition of value again.)

Also, be aware that there are entire following attacks that would occur on "Departments of Reading and Writing", even if English Departments were stripped of Theory. For instance, as a hobbyist poet, I'm familiar with an argument that professors of Creative Writing may have done more to destroy poetry than any other modern factor. Once you create professors whose primary duty is to teach how to write poetry, you inevitably create academic journals overflowing with those professors' poetry, because after all they must still publish or perish. So you get expansion of the number of poetry journals far beyond anyone's ability to read, and destruction of any academically-based critical theories of value because no one wants to piss off their peers, and finally no one reads poetry except those who write it.

Doug M

Sorry; I don't mean to be uncivil. Unconstructive, yes -- I am aware that I have little constructive to say about reforming the humanities. I just wanted to "recontextualize" the debate itself by pointing out that some people think reform is hopeless, and that not all people who think this are barbarians or uncultured techies. I guess I failed. I should have been more polite. I also hope that I'm wrong in thinking that the silliness of college-level humanities is ineradicable; good luck to all in your reforms.


Doug, I'm by no means convinced of your characterization of the "reform is hopeless" faction. In fact, it's strikingly counterintuitive.


Doug, you uncivil bastard. You are the ultimate pedophile.

Seriously, though, I think the Doug-detractors misunderstand him. He values high culture, but wants the academic humanities to stop existing. No one has yet suggested why these two ideas should not coexist happily. So let me pose it to defenders of the humanities: Even taking the value of high culture and liberal education as given (as Doug does, and as I do), why should the academic humanities exist in its current form and at its current scale?

Perhaps, as McGruff argues, Theory makes literary critics sharper. This, however, is an argument that Derrida should write books, and that James Wood (or whomever) should read them. It isn’t an argument for a theory-industrial complex that employs 10,000 people.

Rich Puchalsky

baa writes: "why should the academic humanities exist in its current form and at its current scale?"

If "its current form" equates to Theory, then I don't have an answer. But if "its current form" means that there are specialist professors who study literature, then there is a very good basic answer. Our society expects that everything which is important to people should have specialist academicians studying it. And literature is important to people.

"At its current scale" is a more difficult question, and can only be answered by comparison with other fields. If there were only enough resources for there to be 1,000 people in the world who studied biology, then 10,000 studying literature would be far too many. But 10,000 doesn't seem like too many to me, given the general scale of academia.


Rich: "If English departments ever once could justify Theory through the James Dean argument that they need it to overcome institutional resistance to innovation, they certainly can't now." Right. That's why its hegemony is now plainly crumbling. When even Critical Inquiry can see the handwriting on the wall, Theory is pretty near dead.

Baa: I don't quite follow your point. At this stage in the game, it's difficult to imagine a high culture that would not be profoundly dependent on academic institutions. It's also hard for me to conceive liberal education without the humanities. What would it include? If what you mean is that higher education in the humanities itself should just be tossed, well, I could see that as a possibility, but it seems obvious to me that it would leave the world even more impoverished than it is with the terrible industrial Theory complex of the MLA. (Not to be defensive or anything--since I would gladly never have anything to do with the MLA again--but have you noticed the way what is, after all, mainly an example of large scale mediocrity turns pretty quickly into an ominous bogeyman? The theory industrial complex?)

My point about Doug's post is that disestablishing English to create Reading and Writing would be simply a switch in names. The rose would smell the same. But my more serious objection to his post and to what I think is the gist of yours and likewise to the position of Daniel Green is the way in all cases, I think, a quite legitimate distaste for the silliness of some egregious examples of academic nonsense tends toward outright anti-intellectualism--the substance of which is: c'mon, get over all this nonsense and just say great literature is great. It's my belief that, weird though it may seem, this is an attitude that's actually quite consistent with some of the tendencies that got literary study into its current bind. That is, they're both versions of a romantic sense that literature should be experienced not analyzed or argued over and that in this way it embodies an alternative to rational argument. This attitude is also,I think, a recipe for dullness that in fact would not be fun at all.


I dispute the claim that "Theory" ever was a hegemony. People tend to, in these discussions, take that for granted, but I've always thought that revealed ignorance of conditions on the ground.


At this stage in the game, it's difficult to imagine a high culture that would not be profoundly dependent on academic institutions.

This is exactly what is at issue. How, precisely, are art, music and literature dependent on the academy now? I submit that if 80% of literature professors immediately retired to villas in the south of France the practice of literature as an artform would not be impeded at all. Don't take this as a Romantic call to feel! feel! Tolstoy coursing around you! I am as logocentric as they come. I just do not observe a connection between the majority of academic humanities and the practice of art.

If the academic humanities (and colleges themselves) served as custodians of culture and liberal educators then I would agree: they are essential in maintaining high culture. Do you think this is the role they are now playing?

And just as an aside, "theory-industrial complex" was meant as gentle mockery, the idea being, that with 30,000 people beavering away, surely they must be assembling an airframe or something.

Jonathan: I don't think anyone is claiming that Theory is homogenous. Rather the claim is that as a research program it's largely worthless and could profitably be left to 100 professors and assorted amateurs.


Speaking as an outsider scientist in this eye-opening discussion, I'm confused about something. Are you arguing about public perception of the academic study of literature...or about a crisis in literary academia regarding the direction and quality of scholarly work?

I bet someone might say now the obvious: the two are linked. Yes, they are. But approaching it from one side or the other seems to me to lead to different results. At the moment the discussion seems centred on the internal aspects of the field, not why external observers (students, the public, and so on) might see the study of literature in a certain way. This suggests to me that you are expecting that if someone comes up with some form of post-Theory (whatever that is), external perception of the field should rise.

Am I completely misunderstanding the terms of the debate?


Sorry, Baa, but you're way off target. "How, precisely, are art, music and literature dependent on the academy now?"

How are they not? Take the visual arts as an example. How many of the currently prominent visual artists are not products of the MFA system? How many curators do not have graduate degrees and have not been trained in the canons of scholarship? How many viewers of art have been taught how to care about it in ways that did not involve higher education? How many funding panels do not involve academics or academically trained artists and critics? How many successful artists are not at some point in thier careers supported by university positions? What chunk what it take out of the feeder system for the international art market to do away with university galleries and arts programs?

"If the academic humanities (and colleges themselves) served as custodians of culture and liberal educators then I would agree: they are essential in maintaining high culture. Do you think this is the role they are now playing?"

Short answer: yes. Maybe not in the style you'd prefer, but still in a way structurally indisepnsible to the existence of a high culture. Without academia, there would be no successful large scale patronage system. Nearly all art would be commercial art. That might be preferable to your tastes, but I don't think it would make sense to call it high art anymore.

Doug M

McGruff's point is right in a way. We could even extend it to say "Most serious art, most music in the classical tradition, and most literary criticism is today created by holders or seekers of MFA's or PhD's." What Baa and I would dispute is whether most of their output is high, or valuable, or good art/music/criticism. So while McGruff is right that a shutdown of the feeder system would depress global output, Baa and I propose that it wouldn't matter. Of course, this debate will end up being an irreducible conflict of values. On the other side are those who think (a) that Derrida and his epigones write valuable stuff, (b) that Schoenberg and his epigones compose valuabe stuff, (c) that academic artists of what might be called the Whitney Museum school install valuable stuff. We on my side deny all three of those statements. My side has lost as far as academic humanities go. This doesn't directly bug me because I don't personally want to be a professor. What bugs me indirectly about the other side's near-monopoly on academic humanities, is that it precludes what McGruff called a "crowded-by-genius" moment. A young Goethe or Schiller in modern America would not, I think, end up creating a fruitful Weimar-type situation at a university. He would more likely be so repulsed by the mediocrity of academic humanities that he'd end up a Tom Wolfe, if not an investment banker.


No one's ever accused the German university system of being stultifying, that's for certain. And furthermore, this talk of "shutting down the system" is about as plausible as me suggesting that all investment bankers should be required to carry a tulip at all times. It's just a dream. A beautiful dream.



So this is exciting. An actual dispute on the facts! I think it's telling that your response went immediately to the visual arts. It's almost, but not quite, as if you had adduced conservatories as examples of the academic humanities supporting classical music. So let me keep the focus on literature and English for a moment. Are there MFA programs and writing colonies? Sure. But what about the work done at research universities? These are the institutions at the heart of "theory," and I am still looking for some connection between the literary study/Theory done at these places and the flourishing of literary high culture.

I'll repeat the question. If 80% literature departments at research univeristies closed up shop tomorrow, what do we think happens to literature? I say: nothing. As for where people learn to appreciate literature, I suspect most people come to college with the taste or acquire it without the mediation of scholarly machinery. If we want to rededicate the academic study of literature to student teaching and liberal education, mazel tov! I don't think this is happening, nor do I think it's what the academic study of literature at research institutions.

Do you in fact disagree with this?

Rich Puchalsky

Baa, DougM, I just don't understand your objection. And McGruff, I somewhat disgree with your defense.

Academia is fundamentally not about results. The reason that we have academics studying physics or even engineering is not because they produce technological advancements. The U.S. Republican party might think that, but it's not true; the technological advances are a sort of byproduct. And the reason that we have academics studying literature or music is not because they produce art or art criticism. That, again, is a sort of byproduct.

Academia is about two core values: producing knowledge, and producing educated people. Of course people argue about what knowledge is for a particular field and they argue about what makes a person educated. But these arguments can't be allowed to sabotage the entire enterprise. You can't say that because you disagree with current academic methods of producing knowledge, or current methods of education, that therefore academics must just give up on certain areas. That's like JH's puffer fish fallacy in reverse.

Doug M

Let me rephrase my objection to Theory in the academy this way, then: the "knowledge" that it produces is largely worthless, and this hurts the academy's production of liberally-educated people. The first part is, as I said, an irreducible value conflict. If you believe that Theory papers are more valuable than


If 80% of investment bankers carried tulips with them at all times, would the dot-com bubble have happened? If 233 mergansers simultaneously shifted five centimeters to the left, what would be the effect on Brazil's birth rate? Why do 6/7 commenters here feel that an argument from an absurd hypothetical is worth pursuing?

Doug M

... chmess articles (http://www.ephilosopher.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=9), I won't be able to convince you otherwise. The second part, that Theory's predominance impairs the formation of educated people, likely can be demonstrated, but I don't have the knowledge to do it. Where I went to school, freshman expository writing was taught mostly by adjunct-type people, who seemed competent and down-to-earth. I don't recall any Theory creeping into discussions.

In response to Jonathan, no, of course the system (humanities departments as they exist now) will never be shut down. Nor will they change appreciably in the next decade or two. When they do, it will likely be because of forces and trends unforeseeable today.

What I'd recommend now for English departments (and philosophy departments) is a shift of emphasis from the production of knowledge to the production of educated people.

(sorry about the split post; my attempt to link to the chmess article wasn't accepted.)

Doug M

What's wrong with counterfactuals, even ones that are wildly counter to the facts? They can be helpful tools for understanding the way things actually are. I remember an anecdote about Henry Kissinger, where he asked in a lecture what the geopolitical consequence would be if Africa ceased to exist. His answer, of course, was "nothing." Maybe he was wrong (and maybe the anecdote itself is specious), but it does focus the mind.


The example you cite shows exactly what is wrong with them, I think. They ignore contingency and historical inertia. And they are often very silly.


Sorry Doug, you and I cross-posted. You said it better, so much so that I likely needn't have written anything at all.

That said, let me repeat myself for clarification. Here seem to me some propositions one can agree with, or not.

1. Liberal education is a good in itself
2. High culture is a good in itself
3. The Theory-culture of the academic humanities aids liberal education
4. The Theory-culture of academic humanities aids the production of high culture.
5. A standing army of professional critics doing academic research aids liberal education
6. A standing army of professional critics doing academic research aids the production of high culture.

Everyone here seems to agree on #1 and #2. Boolah boolah.

Doug and I both dispute #3 and #4. In my case, this is because a) most theory-influenced art is horrible, and b) much theory-culture seems explictly opposed to concepts integral to high art and liberal education. Let this pass as a matter of taste, however, and examine #5 and #6.

I believe #5 could be true, even if it is not true now. Most truly great liberal eduactors are also scholar of something. So the production of the liberally minded citizens will inevitably involve a standing army of scholars doing scholarship. As to the need for a standing army of critics to produce great art, well, I see no evidence. Pick your genius authors of the 20th century, make a case for the central role of establishment academic criticism in producing, informing, or even laying out favorable conditions for them. I don't think it can be done.

Jonathan: you believe 1 through 6?
Macgruff: you believe 1 through 6?

Timothy Burke

There's a hidden #7, Baa, that at least some literary critics in the Age of High Theory (now passed, I think most of us agree) would have offered:

7. High Theory is a good in itself.

To some extent, there are still critical theorists who would say just that, and make fairly coherent (in the sense of consistent, thought-out claims) arguments that to require theory to satisfy a utility that is vested in something else (say, "art") is to miss the ways in which theory can serve its own purposes and generate its own pleasures.

I don't agree, but I do see why some critical theorists in the time when it was first incubating saw the constant demand that theory be a secondary endeavor justified by its utilitiarian service to something other than itself as a kind of reductionist philistinism.

Rich Puchalsky

If High Theory = academic knowledge, then it *is* a kind of reductionistic philistinism to insist that Theory lead to high culture. Of course, the devotees of Theory, if I understand them correctly, wouldn't say that it equals knowledge. Which is why I also think that Theory was a wrong turn. But it's a wrong turn for different reasons than those that baa or DougM seem to have.

Jonathan, if you think the counterfactual is irrelevant as a rhetorical device, consider the reality behind it. Someone, at some point, funds universities. If arguments that it would be better than academics just not study certain things become popular, funding is sooner or later cut. English departments can't suddenly vanish, but they can do so over time.

I think that the effect of the academic humanities on high culture, or on art, is irrelevant. As an artist, of course, I might decry it; an example is the argument about poetry that I summarized earlier. But the proper response from academia, and from society, comes down to "too bad". It just isn't the role of the academy to produce either high culture or art, or to change what it is doing based on the effect that it would have on high culture or art.

I'm not sure what people mean by "liberally educated", so I'll have to defer response on that one. Educating people is one of the functions of the academy, yes, but when people talk about "liberal education", they often seem to mean things like "having people be well rounded" or "teaching people how to think". I don't see how this could be the sole responsibility of humanities departments, and they do have actual subjects to consider that go a lot further than this.



I share Jonathan's inclination not to take your counterfactual quite seriously, not because it's a counterfactual but because it seems to me not carefully or fairly constructed. By which I mean that your numbers 1 and 2 are defined so vaguely as to have no content (while in fact a rather specific content for them appears to be presumed--i.e., just exactly what high culture and liberal education involve) while your numbers 3 and 4, by contrast, are defined quite narrowly and in a way that actually obscures a good deal.

I think it's obvious that I'm not much of a fan of Theory and that I think the current state of academic literary study is not sterling. But I think it's simply inaccurate and careless to imagine a theory industrial complex or to speak of a Theory culture or to imagine that whatever this thing is it describes 80% of current literature departments. That's scattershot and no doubt gratifying, but in my view not substantial.

I think Rich is quite right. The defense of literary scholarship is __not_ that it produces people who appreciate serious art--that's a beneficial side effect. The defense of literary scholarship rather is that it adds to our stock of knowledge and enriches our understanding in ways that ultimately give us a fuller sense of the past or of the culture and that therefore may also enable some of us to have a richer experience of those things.

Granted that there has been a good deal of awful and soul numbing nonsense published. Is it yet plausible to say that Theory- influenced scholarship has performed the side-effect function of making people interested in high culture? I think so--and that this is more evident when one focuses on the less egregious examples to consider either average performance or the better examples.

So let me choose an example and let me stack the deck against myself. I'm not much of a fan of Stephen Greenblatt (recent president, as it happens, of the MLA). I don't really like the new historicism he's credited with creating and think that it involved severe conceptual weaknesses and also a kind of historical mysticism (about not just understanding, but in some way directly touching the past) that in fact was one of the prevalent creations of the Theory movement, of which he was very prominently a part. At the same time, I think it would be wrong not to note several things about Greenblatt: (a) he made it possible to look at Shakespeare and the renaissance in ways that were innovative, stimulating, and not absurd; (b) he taught a sensitivity to the richness and complexity and sheer interest of the English renaissance and read in it with great sensitivity and insight; (c) he directly and indirectly educated legions of people who learned to be fascinated by the depth of Renaissance drama because he showed them it was interesting. One measure of this is that the New Yorker and NPR recemntly _wanted_ to talk to him about Shakespeare--not just because Shakespeare is always interesting, but because Greenblatt talks about him in a way that is illuminating and compelling.

As it happens, a lot of people have sensibly noted that there's some really dubious premises at the heart of his latest work. And I think it might be possible to think that these weaknesses are perhaps the kinds of things that might have been nurtured by intellectual attitudes that Theory helped create. As an aside it might be noted that being wrong in this way does not make him worthless or uninteresting, quite the contrary. But to directly address your more serious point, does it mean that he's failing to nurture high culture in the ways that previous Shakespeare scholars did? Obviously not, I think. And there's no reason that we should think either that he's less serious than or that he performs your chosen function less effectively than, say, A. L. Rowse did.


I completely agree with Tim Burke's #7 actually, or at least to the extent that I think abstract thought can be "high culture." And I didn't mean suggest that academic study needs a use value. All I want from Kant scholarship is for it to shine like a jewel from its own light. I made the "aids culture" comparison because that's what I took McGruff to be explicitly arguing for:

Without academia, there would be no successful large scale patronage system. Nearly all art would be commercial art.

I can't speak to the visual arts, but for literature, I don't buy it. I don't think academic literary studies contributes materially to either the production of literature or its enjoyment. That doesn't mean that there are no good academic critics, but rather that academic criticism serves as sideshow to the literarture big top. I would be pleased to be proven wrong about this, and was soliciting reasons to revise my opinions in good faith. So far my powers of counter-factual construction have proven unequal to the task.

Why did we get down this road in the first place? Because Doug suggested that one could be completely devoted to high culture, and still greet the defunding of theory-based departments with glee. One would believe this if 1) the vast majority of scholarhip being done does not reach the level of high culture, and 2) the artistic endeavor to which the scholarship is nominally related would proceed serenly in the absence of scholarship.

I think #2 is just the case, and that this fact is only partially related to the awfulness of Terry Eagleton, et al. Academic criticism just doesn't materially influence the practice of literature. As for #1, we can't seem to find anyone to defend current literary theory as high culture. And my standards are not high -- heck, I'd be willing to defend Philosophy and Public Affairs as at least approximating theoretical high culture.

And Mcgruff, I'm not trying to indiscriminately trash all academic theory, but the babies (Greenblatt, Vendler, and the like) are floating in a Lake Superior of dirty bathwater. Losing a few feet of water level doesn't distress me.

If you think this characterization is false and really the practice of literary theory is thriving despite a few bad apples, then we have a disagreement on the facts. Name me the top three journals in literary studies, and I'll take a look.


I'd like to post a more substantive reply later, but I'm genuinely curious about this, so don't take it the wrong way: baa, what makes you think you know enough about literary studies to have an opinion worth taking seriously? Have you gradually worked your way through Eagleton's various works and come to the measured conclusion of "awfulness," or is that a mere received bloglet? If it is, as I suspect, the latter, please tell me your profession, and I'll play around on the internet for a few minutes and get back to you about how to fix it up but good.

ada lovelace

"...there has been a good deal of awful and soul numbing nonsense published." This statement could be made about any discipline. I believe it is a result of the academic institution's publish or perish imperative.

The scientific and engineering disciplines are rife with publications that don't advance science and technology at all. I would suggest that the participants looking into the literary academy from the outside (as I am) be more honest and admit this. Especially note the gamesmanship in the sciences that leads to publication of several mostly redundant papers about one actual body of work. If you are going to drain several feet of dirty bathwater, promise to do it in your own tub as well!

I am reminded of the description J. Frank Dobie had for what was taught in schools of education: "the unctious elaboration of the obvious." There is a lot of that to lay at the feet of "publish or perish".



I have to say that I strongly share Jonathan's suspicion that you don't take the issues here very seriously, preferring glib dismissal. The way you pose your question makes this pretty evident. Is "literary theory" thriving or is it a Lake Superior of dirty bathwater? This is so poorly framed a question that it can't really be taken seriously. Apart from posing extreme alternatives it takes for granted, as your other posts have, that literary theory and literary scholarship are indistinguishable. That's not accurate.

I got into this discussion because I do think there's a serious problem in the current state of literary scholarship. One aspect of that problem, I think, and a pretty open secret in the business, is that most journal publication is indeed not impressive (for reasons I'd be glad to speculate about later). In this field, serious scholarship appears mainly in books. Another feature is that where journals are decent, they're more or less narrowly focused on defined areas of study--like Renaissance drama or Medieval lit, say. In my field, the journal Modernism/Modernity regularly publishes, along with much that doesn't interest me, worthwhile scholarship and argument. Much of it, like most scholarship, is tedious, but some of it is nevertheless worthwhile.

For what it's worth, the role of academia in supporting high culture is not something I brought up, but that you did. Nor was it something that Doug intially mentioned. This is your issue. My point is simply that, yes, academic activity does nurture--for better or worse (Doug's point)--serious culture, by producing (in whatever small portions) knowledge, by playing a functional role in the patronage system, and by generating indirectly artists and audiences. Two quick, merely impressionistic examples: the recent NYer profile of Tony Kushner noted in passing his college interest in Adorno, Benjamin, and Brecht. Today's NYTimes has a feature on influences on current writers. Colson Whitehead mentions being assigned Jean Toomer's Cane in college. Who do you think assigned it?

I really don't know what you mean by saying "the vast majority of scholarhip being done does not reach the level of high culture" or why that should be significant. But does Stephen Greenblatt, president of the MLA, swim in a sea of mediocrity? (Vendler is not a good example for this discussion.) Yes, as Ada notes, that is a structural feature of scholarship in general--which for various reasons is currently exacerbated in English. But would Greenblatt's scholarship exist if his entire field were disestablished, or even if a mere 80% of it were cut away? Almost certainly not.

Rich Puchalsky

I think that ada lovelace is right, but I don't think "publish or perish" is really quite the syndrome to blame. At the most basic level, every occupation is primarily composed of people who are mediocre at their jobs. In most occupations, this doesn't matter. A mediocre roofer, assembly line worker, lawyer, engineer etc. has plenty of socially useful work that they can do quite safely and competently.

This isn't true within fields that have the following three qualities: 1) some works are super-competent or extraordinarily good, 2) there is a basis of comparison between these and lesser works, 3) there is no obvious, agreed-upon social value to lesser works.

Academia falls into these three categories. It's clear that some academicians are really good researchers or teachers. There is a basis of comparison, either through reading journals or taking classes, by which people can notice how good one person's works are compared to another's. And it is often said, within many fields, that the vast mass of published papers have no value. (Uninspired though not obviously bad teachers still seem to be thought of as having value, because it is thought that someone has to do it.)

I think that this is the most basic factor behind many complaints about "publish or perish". After all, who does it hurt if many bad works are published, even if they qualify as "awful and soul numbing nonsense"? No one really has to read them except their peer reviewers. That's why they have abstracts, and why (at least in the scientific fields that I'm familiar with) some journals are highly prestigious and are assumed to be fully readable, while some are read by almost no one. Peer review is not the only sorting device.

Obviously, what some people are getting at is that there is some particular characteristic of works written under the influence of Theory that predisposes them to be worthless, and which is not a general characteristic of academia such as "publish or perish". If someone could define what gives works in the humanities worth or value, they might actually be able to turn this into a claim of fact that can be proven or disproven. Until then, it's sort of a fashion statement.


I agree with the McGruff's sentiment that there's an interesting discussion to be had here, but it's not in the direction that baa and dougm have been taking it.

I would think your opinion of the quality of scholarship published in journals versus books has to take into account that most of what appears in the latter first was published in the former. Without the surrounding context, the articles may not be as cogent, true, but part of the reason we publish articles in journals is not just for the contemporary expert reading audience's aesthetic pleasure but to add to the knowledge of a given subject for future scholars.

Timothy Burkeq


It's something of a side issue but I have to say that makes no sense whatsoever to me. If what we publish in journals is typically later published in books, and becomes more cogent because of its connections to a fully realized project, in what respect does journal publication add to knowledge of a given subject in some distinctive way? All it does in that sense is serve as a sort of advertisement of coming attractions, and is eventually superceded by a superior delivery of the same knowledge. At which point one is entitled to suspect that the main purpose of journal publication is neither aesthetic pleasure for the audience nor the production of knowledge but instead the lengthening of a c.v.


In the areas of study I know, it's not uncommon for many books to have chapters that appeared, in not much different form, in journals. But, to make a simple point, not everything published in a journal will be in a book. Furthermore, it's difficult to make a convincing distinction between overproduced scholarship and scholarship you just don't like. You don't have to read anything, after all, and I suspect that it's a small field indeed where any one person can reasonably expect to read everything published in it.


My theory about crappy journals isn't quite overproduction, although I'm sure that plays a role. It's the unintended consequences of hyperprofessionalization combined with the disciplinary eclecticism that John first noted, along with some other problems--including the allergy to argument. (Hence the fact that journals dedicated to well defined subfields are better than the omnibuses.) As Rich rightly pointed out, I think, in such a situation, formal peer review doesn't necessarily play a significant role in establishing reputation. It's just a barrier to entry and a means to enforcing orthodoxy. I once published an article in a prominent journal in my field and had to go through 13 separate readings of the piece--two editors, two external readers, and a nine member advisory board. By the time you get down with that process, you may be saved from saying something egregiously stupid (I was), but you can be sure all your edges have been sanded off too.

Weirdly, although it's harder to write a book, it's actually easier to get one published and the peer review process is more likely to be sincere and substantial and to involve people who, sharing some common expertise, are able to actually discuss things. As a result, I think, it's both more necessary to have something worthwhile to say and easier to be innovative with books than with journal articles. So it's not immediately a cause for hopefulness to my mind that the academic monograph, at least in my field, looks headed the way of the horse and buggy.



It’s never a good sign for a conversation when people say “poorly framed” when they mean “wrong.” I sense your frustration, and I must confess to some of my own when attempts to clarify the discussion (and how does one do this? By exaggeration, by posing counterfactuals, imposing categories that though, perhaps imprecise, are distinct and meaningful) generate responses that seem evasive.

Here’s what’s not at issue.

1. Is theory the same as literary and cultural scholarship? We all say: no.
2. Can literary scholarship have value in itself? We all say: yes.
3. Is the theory done in literature departments generally bad? We all say: yes.
4. Is the majority of scholarship done everywhere “high culture.” We all say: not really, that’s an awfully high bar.

So here are points that could be of contention:

1. Is the theory done in literature/culture-focused departments substantially worse than scholarship done in other academic departments.

I say yes. My justification is a couple of encounters with highly praised theory (on topics like “essentialism”) that fall short of minimal standards of intellectual production. This may be a flawed method of review (small sample size, focus on overly faddish productions, whatever), but it is a reasonable one.

2. Is bad theory common enough a substantial majority of literary/cultural scholarship shares many of its vices?

I suspect yes. Why do I think this? Because people working in the field tell me.

3. Is the quality of literary/cultural scholarship overall (theory and not) generally lower than the quality of scholarship in, say, biology, economics, philosophy, and political science?

Again, I suspect the answer is yes. I would admit that this is a difficult claim to assess. As approximate signs of poor health of a field, however, I think one can look to a) the number of noted luminaries who are charlatans, b) the prevalence of articles in non-partisan sources suggesting the field is in trouble intellectually.

4. And last, the point that started this discussion: Even taking the value of high culture as given, why should the academic humanities exist in its current form and at its current scale?

Rich makes a great point that many fields have a strong “winner take all” dynamic. This suggests to me that such fields should adapt to this reality. One way of doing this would be to de-emphasize theory production except at the highest levels, and to focus on teaching. A reduction in size might be another. How much of a reduction in size we could meet with enthusiasm would depend on to what degree we believe #3 above is true.


I think John has written several times over the last year or so about the potential of blogs to supplement and possibly replace academic journals, etc., as means of scholarly communication. Is this what he had in mind?

For many journals, I think the review process is similar to that of a university press: an editor and two or three outside readers (who are presumably work in the paper's area). I also think that the publication acceptance rate varies considerably from press-to-press and from journal-to-journal, but the data the MLA publishes on acceptance rates clearly indicates that it's easier to get an article accepted at an average journal than it is to get a book accepted at an average press.



I don't at all share your sense that it's a bad sign for a conversation when some one points out that a question has been poorly framed. That seems to me a basic feature of rational deliberation. I'll repeat, you can't really be right or wrong about whether literary scholarship is thriving or a Lake Superior of dirty bathwater because it's a bad question--and one, I'd guess, not really looking for a serious reply. The answer is obviously neither.

(The question of whether scholarship rises to the level of high culture is also, so far, as I'm concerned an imponderable. In my view, high culture doesn't have a level, it has a sociology (i.e. art created for small, interested publics and reliant on non-commercial patronage) and it features dreck as well as genius. There's no particular reason why this context should even apply to scholarship--but that's a different issue.)

You suggest I'm evasive. Not true, I think. You began by asking would there be any serious harm to disestablishing 80% of the institution of literary scholarhip. My answer is yes. You might think the benefits would outweigh the costs, but my point is, yes, there would be serious costs.

In response to someone else's request, I mentioned three superb literary critics who have been influenced by or sympathetic to Theory and who successfully reach large publics (Donahue, Malcolm, Menand). I also mentioned one prominent academic closley associated with Theory whose work provides the valuable side effect of nurturing an interest in high culture (Greenblatt). I futher mentioned two artists (Kushner, Whitehead) whose education in high Theory nurtured their work. All this is admittedly anecdotal, but it's not non-responsive.

Your latest post, I believe, has some of the same problems as before. You begin by listing what's not in dispute and start be agreeing that Theory is not equivalent to literary scholarship. (My position, btw, is that it was a once hegemonic, but far from exclusive, intellectual fashion that is rapidly fading away.) But you quickly take back with one hand what you've granted with the other--suggesting in your points of contention that for all intents and purposes Theory and literary scholarship are pretty much the same. (E.g., by saying that a valuable reform would be to de-emphasize theory production so as to emphasize teaching, a suggestion that makes theory production equivalent to scholarship. For what it's worth, the discipline has no direct institutional incentive for theory production.)

You then go on to ask questions that have not yet at all been matters of contention, and in my view are not very serious--to wit, whether the state of literary scholarship is much worse than in other fields. I'll admit to not having the ability to judge this question and to not thinking that it is the most important problem. But I will say this: the evidence you refer to is not very substantial.

Btw, iN response to your request for journals, I mentioned one in particular, Modernism/Modernity. Have you looked at it? The latest number includes 7 articles. One arguing that Marsden Hartle's use of figuration involves an effort to imagine public intimacy; one considering the recent revelation of the fact that Gertrude Stein was a Vichy collaborator and seeking to see some wiggle room for her in that embarassment; one arguing that Stein and Thompson's 4 Saints in 3 Acts formally undermines the nationalist mythologies sometimes evident in grand opera; one arguing that the modernist novel features scenes of churchgoing as a way of taking up the question of public ritual in a period when spirituality was becoming increasingly a private concern and by extension to consider the issue of secularization contemporaneoulsly raised by the founding figures of sociology; one looking at the development of Stockhausen's music; one arguing that Adolph Loos was more attracted to the flighty and ephemeral than we may have thought; and one arguing that the development of antisemitism and misanthropy in British modernist literature was not the product of specific historical events so much as the product of an intellectual innovation, an interest in impersonal hatred. No doubt, theses are essays of varying quality. But of them, only one makes any prominent reference to Theory--and, given Stein's aesthtetic theories, that's arguably suitable. Modernism/Modernity is now the most prestigious journal in its field. It features many young and advancing scholars. The wait to publish in it can be quite long. So, tell me more about the way this shows the obvious charlatanism and the Theory domination of the field.

Should the academic humanities exist in their current form and at their current scale? I think you mean to ask, should literary scholarship exist in its current form and scale? My response obviously would be no, otherwise I wouldn't be in this conversation. The question is what kinds of changes would be possible and optimal. Simply plumping for destruction is, i think, relatively thoughtless.

Your way of asking the question, though, is revealing. Politically, it's unlikely that one field in the humanities will be substantially reduced without changes to all of them--history, philosophy, classics, etc. (Your last sentences, suggesting that, once we all agree literary study is stupid, it will be easy to fundamentally change it, would be a non-starter in most contexts.) Sociologically, my guess is that none of the problems evident in literary scholarship do not exist _to some degree_ in other disciplines. I suspect that one reason people enjoy saying that the discipline is utterly bankrupt, often on impressionistic evidence, is that seeing the evident problems, one can say, well, at least we're not that bad. But there's not much value in doing that.

Rich Puchalsky

baa, I'm getting more willing to agree that you're fundamentally on the wrong track here. Decisions about defunding academia never result in the neat takedown of theories that one doesn't like. Nor should they. They are just excuses for anti-intellectuals to go on the rampage.

If one wants change to occur in the academic humanities, the first thing to accept is that it will have to be carried out by professors in the academic humanites. And there is no way that this change is going to occur if it's linked to "hey, let's put 80% of you out of work". You can't create academic change as if you were busting a union.

So let me get back to what I think the core issue is, which is about the philosophy of knowledge. In what sense can knowledge be created within literary criticism? I would boil down the information included in a work of literary criticism down into four basic areas:

1. Historical / biographical: information about the author, the historical context of the work, etc. This can obviously be either true or not.

2. Structural: information about the formal structure of the work and the techniques used. (I've avoided the word "formalistic" because that brings in a larger New Criticism context). These items again can be fairly straightforward in terms of truth value.

3. Mimetic: judgements about how well the work depicts reality. These can range from judgements about whether dialogue is realistic to whether characters react in a psychologically believable fashion to whether a depicted society is economically realistic. These could be, if not precisely truthful or not, at least amenable to a large degree of reasoned argument.

4. Qualitative: basic information about whether the critic thinks the work is good or not. This can be based on one of the three other items above -- "I think the book is poor because the dialogue is so stilted", etc -- but most often it isn't. One can imagine critiquing China Mieville, say, and while the historical /biographical elements are important (the Paris Commune) as well as the structural ones (pulp conventions) and the mimetic (were ever evildoers really so evil?) the final judgement comes down to ... judgement.

One of the categories that links most modern critical theories is the postmodern one that denies that a work can really be judged to be good or bad. In other words, it denies that category 4 above can be said to have a truth value. I think that this is wrong, and not only that, it may be testably wrong. More in next comment.

Rich Puchalsky

I note in reading over the above that I didn't emphasize that my judgement that the proper purpose of academia is the production of knowledge in itself disqualifies some critical methods. If you really hold to a deconstructionist view that a text has no innate meaning, then clearly you can't have any knowledge about it. If you think the purpose of Theory is to have fun, or to play with words, then you may well be having fun, but you aren't doing academic work.

Back to the question of whether "this work is good" or "this work is better than that one" is really a testable statement. I think that it all comes down to whether what people perceive as the quality of a work is primarily individually, culturally or biologically defined. I think that there is a clear sociological argument that it isn't individually defined, and a possible biological one that it isn't culturally defined.

First the sociological argument: clearly our culture has a set of basic guidelines about what makes a book "good", and these judgments are promulgated by education. I assume that you could design and execute a survey that would prove that people en masse really do have correlated judgements that one book is good and another isn't. (Whether this judgement conforms to "high culture" is a question that I can put off at this point.) People tend to sneer at this point and say, well, if all you're talking about is that living middle-class European white males like dead middle-class European white males ... but knowledge is knowledge whether it's a cultural universal or not. If you accepted a view that literary quality was primarily cultural, you could start to say things like "This work has higher literary quality than this other one according to standards of West Indian cultural judgement." That's better than nothing.

Then the biological argument: there are classics that seem to survive the death of the host culture. Perhaps this just means that there are certain cultural universals that are responses to changeless aspects of human behavior, or maybe only those classics survive whose cultures were partially passed down into modern ones. But, much as I've denigrated Wilson's book Consilience, I think that there is a certain argument to be made that maybe it's brain-based. Babies do have this mysterious ability to pick up language quickly at a certain period. Maybe what we all respond to when we say that a particular emotionally affecting story can be told either well or not well is some aspect of appreciation of the form of language that truly is universal because it's part of human brain structure. This will probably become a testable hypothesis as we learn more about brain function.

I don't mean this to be a retreat into scientism, with no regard for the individual insight of the critic and everything forced into crude statements of fact. Rather, I'm saying that what really seems to be needed is a new, intellectually valid reason for a critic to be able to say "I can say that this work is good because my judgement is good". This used to be acceptable because of high culture assumptions that are no longer universally accepted within our society. Now that these assumptions have been sucessfully contested, something else needs to replace them -- if critics want to still be able to talk about whether a work is good or not, which critics and non-critics alike generally regard as one of the most important parts of their work. And whatever needs to replace them needs to be laid out straightforwardly.

Rich Puchalsky

Someone might read this and say "What would we need literary studies for under this model? Just have sociologists do surveys, and whatever a majority of people think is good, is good by definition." Needless to say, I don't think that's true. In order to fully appreciate a cultural entity, you need to understand both its internal complexity and its allusions to other entities. Neither of these can be done without some experience or education that involves studying other such works. Without an understanding of the complexity and allusions of a piece, you can't fully distinguish between it and less complex or less allusive works. And this complexity seems to be important in terms of our generalized cultural or biological evaluation of whether a work of art is good or not; you can't just ignore it.

All of which is to say that I believe that there can be a consensus of experts about the quality or otherwise of any particular artistic work, much as there can be a consensus among scientists in a particular field, and that this consensus does require experts in order to make it. There might indeed be something known as "high culture" that is not merely a set of social conventions.

Rich Puchalsky

One last note on this long ramble: I recently looked up some information on Terry Eagleton, following Jonathan's recommendation. One Web site described his latest stage as involving him "call[ing] for a 'revolutionary criticism' that explicitly seeks practical social goals as the end of literary study rather than mere knowledge of the text."

Everyone who has read this far already knows what I'm going to write about this, of course. If Eagleton is doing this on his academic time, he's ripping people off. Academia is not about the promotion of one's favored social goals. There's nothing wrong on giving up on knowledge as the primary goal, of course, as long as you're willing to give up academia.

But I should add that I've never understood why people in cultural or literary studies so often seem to think that they are fitted to seek practical political or social goals. They generally know very little about economics, if it's the economic part of Marxism that they are interested in. They aren't in political science. They aren't generally good activists or leaders. They don't know how to write a clear political manifesto that people can understand. They certainly aren't "revolutionary" in any way -- the whole concept is laughable, frankly; real political revolution and tenure do not go together.


Rich, your final post does a good job of summarizing what I find ridiculous about this conversation. The web site's gloss is, I'm certain, more than enough information with which to make any sweeping generalization you see fit.

Now the problem with astronomers is that you've been paying far too much attention to the gamma quadrant...

Rich Puchalsky

Do you actually disagree with the gloss on Eagleton? I chose it as a representative comment, one of many. The later generalization about literary / cultural studies people in general is not based on Eagleton, but on my personal experience in two decades of working with and for activist groups.

Rich Puchalsky

Altough, to be fair, I should add that a lot of my experience with academic Marxists in activism has been indirect rather than direct. I got my start working with Lois Gibbs' organization after Love Canal, and they certainly had a body of experience that they communicated to their people. They were perhaps closer to being a revolutionary group than most, having broken out shotguns and taken two EPA people hostage at one point (luckily for them, this was the Carter rather than a Republican administration, and they achieved their primary demand the next day), and their experience with academic Marxists could be harshly characterized as either "Hi, I'm your vanguard party!" or "Your child is dying of cancer? Well, that will heighten the contradictions!" Academic Marxists really, really loved to write about the group's praxis, or something, and that was about all that people trusted them to do.

My subsequent direct interactions haven't been as bad, and I've worked with a few good left-wing economics professors (no idea whether they were actually Marxists), so I'm sorry if I was too harsh.



I do sense we're at an impass. You say:

I'll repeat, you can't really be right or wrong about whether literary scholarship is thriving or a Lake Superior of dirty bathwater because it's a bad question--and one, I'd guess, not really looking for a serious reply. The answer is obviously neither.

This seems to me simply incorrect. The question as posed can be right, and it can be wrong. Some fields thrive, others have a few redeeming features/participants but are largely worthless. Immunology, for example, is a field of the first kind. Herbal medicine is a field of the second kind. And there could be (and is) a fruitful debate about which field psychology most resembles (I would say more like immunology, but that's me.) This is science, of course, so perhaps the analogy will be deemed poorly formed! But I hope you get the point. (and just as an aside, you misread me a bit. I suggested that a conversation may be failing when disagreements of fact are construed as diasgareements about framing. I have no beef with disagreement about framing in themselves.)

This, I think you agree, is a well-framed question:

Are there a series of fields in the humanites where the quality of work and thinking is much worse than the norm in the social sciences?

I suspect there are several such fields, and suspect further that these are largely the fields where capital T theory has had a vogue.

Admittedly, this is an impressionistic, outsider's take. But it is supported by evidence ranging from reports from participants in the field, to press coverage, to (sorry!) the fact that several noted luminaries appear to be pretty worthless. All this evidence may be inaccurate (although I would argue that nothing like the same set of evidence could be mustered against philosophy, or classics). The question is nonetheless a meaningful one with an answer. I understand that you think this outsider's perspective ignorant and wrong. And I don't see much way forward except by injecting more facts into the discussion (and I have appreciated your efforts to make the discussion concrete) It's a hard question to get at, and I wonder if we could agree on a way of testing the hypothesis that both of us could find compelling. (if perusal of back numbers of Modernism/Modernity shows them full of good scholarship, that would go far to convince me of the health of literary scholarship. What would it take to convince you that they are not healthy?)

Maybe you think this is not an important question, or judge it a new (and irrelevant) tangent in the discussion. I think the quesrion is important, and is intimately related to the comment of Doug's that got this started:

I just wanted to "recontextualize" the debate itself by pointing out that some people think reform is hopeless, and that not all people who think this are barbarians or uncultured techies.

Intellectual disciplines can can go off the rails. When they do, one wants to correct them. How off the rails they are will influence what reforms one will consider. The main practical point I want to make is pedestrian one: if one thinks scholarship in a field is (generally) of low quality, and has winner-take-all characteristics in any case, a good reform would be de-emphasizing the production of scholarship. Could that mean defunding and contraction? Yes it could.

And last, thank you for your patience. I have sensed your irritation at several points. And certainly, if you have perceived me as advancing dismissive/bad faith arguments, that irritation is understandable. I hope you will believe that someone genuinely interested in the status and fate of the huamnities would go on at such length!

I agree with you (and McGruff) that any academic reform will likely be less selective than we would like. The question still needs to be asked: when is a discipline in such bad shape that we should we consider drastic measures? Here's a drastic reform: greatly limiting graduate programs, and focusing faculty time on undergraduate instruction. I don't envision a world without literary studies, but I could envision one with much less publication and many fewer grad students. [A discussion for another day is the suggestion such a reduction might benefit grad students substantially]


Is Rich's gloss wrong? In my experience, when I ignorantly oversimplify or mischaracterize the research project of a scientist or economist or philosopher or political scientist, she can usually set me straight in two or three sentences. If Rich has got Eagleton so terribly wrong, perhaps you could enlighten him (and me) as to how. I would have thought a politically engaged, "don't just understand the world, the point is to change it," role for literary criticism is precisely what Eagleton advocates (or at least, advocated at one time).



For the record, you have now raised at least three or perhaps four different questions of fact. (1) Would there be any effect on high culture if 80% of literary departments were disestablished? (2) Is literary scholarship significant to the existence of high culture? (3) Is literary study thriving or a lake superior of dirty bathwater (4) Is literary scholarship significantly worse than scholarship in other disciplines? I've responded to several of these questions, and you've switched ground every time. And yet I am the evasive one.

To your last question, you have now added a useful analogy: is literary study more like immunology or herbal medicine? Now, I have to admit that I work in the bankrupt field of literary study, but even I can recognize a prejudicial analogy when I see one. This one would, in fact, produce pretty much the same results applied to any discipline in the humanities and most in the social sciences--irrespective, by the way, of how robust they are. Is philosophy more like herbal medicine than immunology? Let's see. Do repeatable experiments resolve questions that allow the discipline to make undoubted advances? I don't think so. I guess it's more like herbal medicine.

I've got nothing against philosophy. Quite the contrary. But, yes, analogies like your latest do suggest to me, if not necessarily bad faith, a lack of genuine interest. You now say that disciplines can go off the rails and when they do one wants to consider reform. I agree. But remember, in the post of Doug's that began this dispute and that you quote with approval, the assertion was that reform was hopeless. I believe in more rigorous disciplines than mine this is called a contradiction.

I do encourage you to peruse back issues of Modernism/Modernity, along with perhaps Shakespeare Quarterly, Speculum, ELH, and Nineteenth Century Literature--remembering to ask not whether there's good, bad, indifferent, and silly evident, but whether there's clear evidence that the field is bankrupt. Even someone from outside the social sciences like me can see that your data set and ways of gathering information have been so far negligible.

I'd also suggest that the question is literary study as good as the social sciences in general is like most of your others, a poorly framed question. If there's any meaning to disciplinary distinctions, this would amount to asking whether the quality of the apples is better than the quality of the oranges and would not get you very far.

Surely, what you'd want to know, rather, is something more like what Rich is trying to get at: what literary scholarship might reasonably do; how well it is now doing it; and what kinds of reforms might improve performance. But that would be a real conversation and no doubt much less gratifying.

Meanwhile, while you're considering precisely how much to defund from literary study, I hope you'll construct a rigorous model that will enable us to be precise. Let me grant that literary scholarship has produced more than its fair share of nonsense. I've also read or heard patently absurd stuff in, oh, religion, law, history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and even philosophy. Perhaps you can figure out what percentage of each should be disestablished.



I am sorry that the concept of defunding gets your hackles up. I'm sorry also that every analogy seems to you an attack. Here's what I was trying to do: use another large, intellectual field -- lets call it "medical science," -- and note that it is often both possible and useful to assess comparative quality of disciplines within that field (that is, apples to apples). You seem to think this is an inherently prejudicial and bogus exercise. It is not. You seem also to think that any engagement with an intellectual discipline which comes to the conclusion "there should be 80% fewer grad students" must be poorly informed or motivated by spite, or uninterested in "real conversation" about reforms. Again, not so. I would, as it happens, recommend contracting the graduate programs in philosophy, my former field. Perhaps I only suggest this because I find the concept of defunding "gratifying" for obscure psychological reasons of my own. Or perhaps it's because I care about philsophy a great deal and want to redress problems I see there.

I agree there have been several matters of fact raised. And perhaps I have been careless in my formulation. You have not been so careful yourself, as a reader, so perhaps we can agree to share blame. I do not want to suggest that your replies on the "matters of fact" have been non-responsive, but they haven't been compelling either. You've suggested at times that one can't meaningfully say whether a discipline is thriving or not. I disagree. You have also suggested that literature is substantially dependent on literary scholarship, and I don't agree with that either. I do agree that scholarship can itself be high culture, but I am skeptical of the degree to which that is true, and the institutional scale needed to sustain this kind of scholarship.

As for your examples, Stephen Greenblatt may be excellent, and Kushner may have gained from reading Derrida. But I hope you understand why this doesn't suffice. Here comes another thought experiment, so hold on to your hat: Imagine political theory had been almost completely captured by some bad intellectual approach. Just to make this nice and non-partisan, let's call this bad approach "vulgar right-wing Straussianism." So some critic comes along and says: "jeez, there is a lot of crappy politicized work here, this discipline is in trouble." A defender couldn't respond simply by noting that Straussian scholar X has done good work, or by referencing the influence of the ideas on Saul Bellow. Right? The critic would still be able to say: "I grant you those two sterling exceptions, but it seems to me this discipline is rife with bad, flawed work; the situation is much worse than in humanities departments X and Y; the contribution to culture (in the discipline or outside it) is neglibile; so with all that said, do we really need 5,000 professors and 15,000 grad students doing this?"

I believe this hypothetical critic has just asked a fair question. I don't get the sense that you believe this can ever be a fair question or the right question. You seem to think, again, that even raising the question implies the questioner cannot be serious about reform, or believe reform possible. As it happens, I'm more optimistic about the possibility of reform than Doug. But I doubt this stems from a differing attitude about defunding.


Yes, Baa, your analogies and counterfactuals do seem to me imprecise and purposefully designed to create the outcome you've already determined on. Comparing, say, sociology and English, on the one hand, or psychology and philosophy to immunology and herbal medicine, on the other, seems to me a bad analogy for a number of reasons. To choose but one disanalogy, the former two pairs in both cases are in fact not members of an "intellectual field" analogous to medical science. They do not share methods, purposes, and means of evaluating results.

I have not in fact suggested that one can't say whether a discipline is thriving or not. I began this conversation by conceding that literary scholarship has not been. I did say that the question of whether a discipline is thriving or a lake superior of dirty bathwater is a bad question because it poses ridiculously polarized options. I'm not sure why that objection is so hard to grasp. If you're alternator was busted and you took your car to a mechanic, you would not ask: is my car thriving or is it a junk heap? You'd want a more precise way of figuring out its condition--unless, of course, you were already looking to junk the car.

I have never said anything about scholarship being high culture--so you're not agreeing with me when you say it can be--and, frankly, it's a mystery to me why you keep bringing the issue up. It doesn't mean anything significant to me and, to my mind (for reasons I mentioned above, when I suggested that high culture does not have a level but a sociology), it suggests intellectual confusion.

I'm certainly aware that anecdotal evidence can't decide any issue--though I'd also point out that my replies have usually been more specific and offered more examples than yours. But, let's also note, that I specifically did _not_ mention Greenblatt or Kushner or anyone else to say the discipline was not in trouble--since that's the position I began from. I mentioned both as, yes, anecdotal evidence toward the proposition that the academic humanities play a significant role in nurturing high culture virtually regardless of the current quality of the scholarship in the field.

My apologies if I read you carelessly. I'm not aware of having done so and would be interested to see examples. I am aware, though, that from your first post in this thread, in which you said I claimed Theory makes critics sharper (something I did not in fact say), you've been pretty freewheeling.

I'm not in fact opposed to considering what would amount to significant structural reforms of the humanities--including serious redistribution of resources and priorities. But when a particular discipline is being proposed for something like disestablishment, one hopes to see that the person proposing the reform has arrived at her judgment carefully, with a considered sense of where the potential value and where the problems of the discipline lie. That's an approach I very much admire in John's posts, which are obviously informed by a genuine interest in what literary scholarship could or should do. It's not something I think is evident in your posts.



Sorry, I did think your were citing Menand and others as examples of critics who were improved by their encounters with theory. That is stronger than what you wrote. You'll note, however, that this is a reading that makes the case for theory (and for the allegedly profound dependence of high culture on academic institutions) stronger, not weaker. But I agree it's not precisely what you wrote. Likewise, I mention that theory can itself be valuable because a) I believe it, b) it's a correct clarification made by both Tim Burke and Rich, and c) it (again) strengthens, rather than weakens the position I'm arguing against. Sorry if this practice irks you.

I wish, in retrospect, this discussion had centered on a field where criticism didn't provoke such defensiveness from you. Philosophy, for example. I revere philosphy, I even revere academic philosphy. But I think graduate philosophy programs should be cut pretty far down. I guess this just constitutes poor judgment and lack of care by your lights. Understand, however, that very few people not already deeply invested in the current structure of the academic humanities will see it that way.



It makes no sense to be deliberately inflammatory and then complain when someone takes exception. DougM has the good grace to acknowledge that.

Granted, the conversation could have taken a more productive and less combative tack. I'll bet on some positions--on reform of the humanities in general, say--we're probably not that far apart. But the conversation didn't take the tack it did because I'm deeply invested in the current structure of the humanities--I'm not--but, in my view, because you deliberately staked out positions designed to generate more heat than light.

Doug M

Now that most of the crowd has moved on to the after-party at John's Socratic dialogue, I think I can make one more post here and hopefully leave it at that. I repeat my apology and accept blame for the combative tone that's predominated here since I barged in. I was frustrated with my own mediocre office work that day; posting in such a condition is about as wise as calling an ex-girlfriend when drunk. Still I think a few good topics came flying out of what ensued. Like the overproduction of papers, and the problems that underlie it or result from it. Nobody here seems happy with this current structure of the academic-paper economy. There has to be a better way; may future threads reveal it. Also, it's heartening to have found a core of people more or less "in" the literary-studies business who grasp that there is a problem and want to do something about it. (Not to deny the clearly bitter disagreements about the size and nature of the problem.) One more topic that got mentioned and that I'd like to discuss, on another day and on another page: whether the current system is good for grad students. The humanities grad students I know seem by and large less happy than other people. You could explain this as a natural propensity of intellectuals for melancholy, or as an unavoidable result of their living in an anti-intellectual country (or even as a reaction to unwillingly boorish kibbitzers from the private sector!) -- but I think most of it is The Current State of Graduate Education In The Humanities.


Sliding over from Part I, where I recklessly used the word "bonkers” to describe the idea that the making of arguments as the key to academic success is hidden from students.

John, this may have been the kind of thing that got me in trouble with Chris over at Crooked Timber a while back: He professed shock about some kind of ignorance in America. I couldn’t believe that someone as well informed as he appears to be would not be aware of such ignorance in America, so I assumed that he was snarking and snarked back. Apparently he really was surprised.

Anyway, I suspect something similar is happening here. I honestly can’t think of what people are doing in liberal arts courses if they are not making arguments in papers, or even in PowerPoint presentations, if it has come to that in this fallen era. You seem to be saying similar things here in Part II. Explicating a poem is an argument. Tracing the development of a character is an argument. Linking an author’s concerns to biographical or historical developments is an argument. Over in history or economics or politics, the song remains the same. (In performing arts there may be fewer arguments, but interpretations and really any choices made in performing are the results of arguments, so the arguments are at least implicit. Even in creative writing, if there are critiques, there will be arguments.) And so on ad infinitum, or at least ad graduation day.

Which is why I thought it bonkers for Graff to claim that " summarizing and making arguments” is "precisely [the] game that academia obscures,” even if he artfully claims this is done "generally by hiding it in plain view amidst a vast disconnected clutter of subjects, disciplines, and courses.” This strikes me as saying that when teaching someone to play American football, the key to success -- moving the ball down the field and into the end zone -- is hidden in plain sight amidst a vast disconnected clutter of blocking assignments, pass routes and formations.

Graff’s claim makes even less sense, because while an offensive tackle may never move the ball directly, every time a student writes a paper, or even answers a test question that begins with the word Why or How, he or she is making an argument. (Maybe this is a good time to say that I am using the word argument in the loose, Pythonesque sense: a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.) Would the situation improve if, instead of whispering "Plastics” at the end of four years, some luminary stood up before the freshman class and said, "Welcome to State U; the key to success here is good argument”? There would be a grad school version, of course: "Welcome to Department X; the master discipline is argumentation.” Rich P’s point about remedial education makes much the same claim.

"But there is radical unclarity about what COUNTS as an argument.” Ok, this makes much more sense. And it’s genuinely a problem, because with such uncertainty in the discipline, the professors can’t teach with much certainty. So part of what is happening is that there is a struggle within the discipline for the hegemony of one sort of argument or another. Text-based, or appreciative, or social, or structural, or post-structural or whatever.

To make matters worse, among the professors, this struggle is probably also a struggle for prestige and resources within the department, university and discipline as a whole. The search for prestige may be a zero-sum game, while the resources could also be positive-sum (in a growing field or institution) or negative-sum (with rampant adjunctification). And there’s likely an element of personal identification with a form of argument.

To the extent that prestige and resources have attached to "cutting edge” work, there have obviously been incentives to push that edge. To use a mathematical analogy, a critic who wants to make a career discussing points is dislodged or superseded by one who writes on lines. This critic is, in turn, overtaken by the one who talks about spaces, and so on, up the ladder of dimensions. Or, more likely in literary criticism and theory, the ladder of metas. Confusion ensues.

This is probably where the methodological problems cross over with the pedagogical. Professors are contesting the proper subjects of argument and the acceptable types and forms of arguments while simultaneously attempting to transmit at least some of their point of view to the students.

I notice that Timothy Burke has come to my aid since I began writing this post. " But students who come from educational institutions where the purpose of writing is declarative or informational, basically to prove you did the homework, find the functioning of ‘argument’ in the humanities to be really baffling.” I can see that, both theoretically and empirically, and I can see that it could be a problem. Still, it’s a long way from Graff’s claims of hiding.

Sheesh, now Graff’s here, too. Better be careful with throwing around words like bonkers. Still, it feels like we’re making progress here. There’s a pedagogical problem that’s apparently widespread, as attested by people whose experience is current. Solving it by making the importance of argument explicit may or may not be a hard problem. (Are students better served if they have the importance served up, or if they have to come to it inductively like McGruff did?) The pedagogical problem is tied to open questions within the various disciplines. Part II is an interesting start on resolving them, or at least sketching them clearly and pushing toward an explicit discussion.

ps I read SusanC’s "fun” in this thread as something akin to Csikszentmihaly’s idea of "flow.” That is, not tra-la-la whee fun, but rather deeply engaging, energizing and potentially enlightening. Perhaps she meant something along those lines?

pps In re: unhappiness of humanities grad students. Certainly having your whole professional field called into question on a regular basis can’t be all that good for the soul. Second, the experience of mature adults having their futures so obviously hanging on the whims and quirks of your professors. (Not analogous to having a cranky boss; there are other jobs, but just try shopping a dissertation to a second grad school.) Third, the social uncertainty, caught between apprenticeship and potentially soon being a peer of those who now sit in judgement. Fourth, keen awareness of the opportunity costs involved in spending years on something PhD-like. Fifth, the grinding sense that you could always be working on the manuscript; a bit like being an entrepreneur, but with few of the potential rewards. Sixth, competition for very obviously scarce resources. (Sixth-and-a-half, professors who make that competition worse than it has to be.) Seventh, potentially exploitative work situations as teachers, personal assistants, whatever. I think those cover some reasons. Admittedly, very few of them are restricted to the humanities. A few years back, when I read the letters to Nature regularly, there were complaints about almost all of the above in the university/research systems in a great many OECD countries. Things along the lines of, you think it’s bad in Spain, let me tell you what we put up with in Germany.

ppps Though my last name also starts with M., I an not Doug M., and this is just a two-Doug night. (Has this comment reached Holbovian length?)

The Sanity Inspector

That's a clever analogy, the puffer fish is. I would have used the analogy of the octopus. With its grasping arms, Theory claims suzerainity over everything, but jets off behind an inky cloud of obfuscatory rhetoric when challenged.

Gerald Graff

John, you quote my comment that "I had classmates [in high school] who excelled at schoolwork and would later have been called nerds, but these without exception were science or mathematics whizzes, technical geniuses rather than masters of argument or cultural analysis" (p. 215). You comment that for me "the implication is that science, math--in general technical disciplines, e.g. logic--aren't concerned with argument."
No, the implication is that, as they were taught in my high school, science and math weren't concerned with argument. But my point is they should have been. Why would I say that science and math "aren't concerned with argument" when my whole thesis is that they, like all disciplines, are?
Later you write that while I'm "ostensibly discussing curricular matters," you think "it is the crisis of what counts as an argument, i.e., the question of why Theory is good, that spurs [me] to discuss how to teach argument." Again, not really. What spurs me to discuss how to teach argument is my feeling that universities do it poorly--and don't even make clear the centrality of argument to students and others. (And to you who find that claim hard to believe, come talk to some of my students!) My point has nothing to do with "the crisis of what counts as an argument" or with Theory (though maybe it should have), seeing that for me the problem long predates those things.
John, is it possible that your reading of Clueless is skewed by my previous writing as a defender of theory? I plead guilty to having done that, but that's not what I was about in Clueless, at least as far as I know my own intentions. If you want to take me on about theory (or Theory), you might want to look at other writings, where I define theory, for example, as the kind of discourse that's produced when consensus breaks down and assumptions that once went without saying (i.e., about the nature of literature, or anthropology, or reading) have to be explicitly formulated and debated. Perhaps in some way that I don't see my thinking about theory gets into Clueless, but as far as I'm concerned I could've written the book without ever mentioning theory. For what it's worth, for me the real battle in literary studies is not to teach theory but to teach criticism--see my chapter "Outing Criticism."
Jerry Graff



It may be that we can meet halfway on this one. I do think it is fair to say that there are some focus issues with your book: teaching the conflicts vs. teaching the kids. Ostensibly the latter, but with long shadows of the former. But you may be right that I went out to pick a fight about theory and that your book was not an entirely suitable venue. You find my insistent tugs at your arm, to get you to stand where I want you so I can give you a healthy one-two to be tedious, hmmm, yes. Well, I can see how it might be.

I do think it is significant that one of the problems with literary studies, post-theory, is a lingering sense that one needs to 'do theory', in some sense, because one has to make arguments. When in fact 'theory' - i.e. the cluster of styles and figures that go by that moniker - are not in fact suitable tools for argument, unless that term is generalized beyond all plausible usability. Argument means giving reasons to accept things. Theory is about rhetorical enforcement of a sensiblity. This sounds like dire abuse but really it is a way of acknowledging the romanticism of theory, if you like. Romantics are wonderful folks, in their way. Bursting with insight on their best days. But they have never been ones for arguing, in any sort of conventional sense. I'm sort of stumping for a view on which it makes sense - and doesn't even sound abusive - to say: it's ok to do theory. Sure, be a crafty reader. Touch of Zizek, dab of Austin. Critics of all ages have indulged themselves in argufying ( in Empson's sense)' in agonistic metaphysical poetry, they have adorned their personalities with bits and pieces of the history of philosophy; they have used that history as a magic lantern through which to project what they take to be their immediate insights. But, in addition to doing theory, you should also make arguments. Otherwise the place gets to be a mess.

I'm not saying this like it is so obvious that everyone should be compelled to bow down before me voluntarily (as the Underground Man said.) It's just my considered view, for which mounds of argument and painstaking history of 'theory' are required, only some of which I have (to be honest) done.

Cheers, and thanks for dropping by. Scroll down the main page to see my funny Glueless in Academe comic frame post if you missed it. I think you will find it worth a laugh.


OK, rereadng the post - and the previous one - I really ended up talking too little about Graff's ostensible subject, even granted that my view is that he's a little distracted from it himself. I really did sort of forcibly drag him where I wanted him to be so I could expound on the discontents (mine, that is) of Theory. Well, my apologies for declaring a seminar on his book then just talking about something else.

Rich Puchalsky

OK, getting back to Graff's main theme, then, I'm still a bit confused about why he apparently doesn't consider this to be a remedial education problem. Note that I haven't read any but the first chapter of his book; maybe he addresses the question in some obvious fashion later on. But he seems to, from what he's written here, consider the lack of understanding of the culture of argument to be a curricular problem, while I would consider it to be a "single introductory course" problem.

Graff writes: "No, the implication is that, as they were taught in my high school, science and math weren't concerned with argument. But my point is they should have been."

Hmm -- too much memorization, not enough derivation? Not enough focus on historically important experiments or lab work? But if Graff's high school was teaching upper-level math and science courses intended to prepare students for college, they should have gotten some of this. Though current secondary education being what it is, it's understandable that they didn't.

Calling on personal experience once again (after all, Graff is -- he mentions "my high school"), I went to a lousy high school that didn't really prepare students well for anything. Science courses were taught by people with no training in science. I still remember one of my teachers telling us that humid air rose, and my asking him why, since H2O was heavier than just oxygen by itself. He didn't have any answer, so I had to figure out for myself that normal air was O2 and N2, both heavier than H2O. The point is that the students who go on to study these subjects in college generally figure out for themselves how to argue (i.e., support opinions with reasons), even if their teachers don't teach them how to do so. It's a fundamental part of being curious about these subjects in the first place.

I really should read Graff's entire book. Well, another one to put in the queue...

Gerald Graff


Nothing wrong at all with "declaring a seminar on [my] book and then talking about something else. I'm grateful for any attention I can get! But thanks for acknowledging that my book may not be the most suitable venue for picking "a fight about theory."

You say there are still some "focus issues with [my] book: teaching the conflicts vs. teaching the kids, ostensibly the latter, but with long shadows of the former." If so, it's because I was trying to get readers to see that "teaching the conflicts" was always about "teaching the kids," i.e., not about my love of conflict for its own sake or even about making the culture war educationally useful. I really do believe that there's a link between controversiality and intelligibility, so that effacing whatever is controversial in a subject renders it unintelligible, as I argue on pp. 12-14 and a few other places, but probably too briefly. The argument is summed up in the quotation from J. S. Mill on pp. 14-15.

Thank you for "Glueless in Academe."
The T-shirt is in production!

To Rich: I was probably confusing in putting "remedial" in scare quotes, which I did because I don't care for the word but not because I disagree with you about the elementary nature of the educational problems I'm concerned with.

To Doug: You're still puzzled by my claim that academia obscures its culture of argument, which I say is "hidden in plain sight." Maybe it'll help to say that what I'm trying to do in this book is look at academia--and its culture of argument--from the perspective of the kind of student who finds it more or less baffling. We may disagree on this, but I find this kind of student very pervasive (including some who get good grades). Now it may be stunningly obvious to you and me that making arguments is everywhere in the humanities and the sciences (actually, many in both camps disagree). I certainly agree with you that, as you say, it's hard to figure "what people are doing" in these courses "if they are not making arguments. . . ." What I'm suggesting, though, is that this fact that's obvious to you and me is not obvious at all to many students. In fact, I suggest that the very obviousness of the centrality of argument to many academic insiders works to blind them to its non-obviousness to others, and thus leads them not to notice the ways in which many academic practices, "obscure" the academic argument culture, "hide it in plain sight," and so forth.

You liken my argument to saying that the key to success in American football--moving the ball down the field, etc.--"is hidden in plain sight amidst a vast disconnected clutter of blocking assignments, pass routes and formations." In fact, the object of football IS hidden in just that way for the many people who are clueless about football. That's usually not a problem, because those who don't want to remain clueless about football manage to get it figured out or explained, but this is often not the case for those who don't want to remain clueless about academe, and I argue that we don't give them much help in seeing through the clutter to the game itself.

Jerry Graff

The comments to this entry are closed.

Email John & Belle

  • he.jpgjholbo-at-mac-dot-com
  • she.jpgbbwaring-at-yahoo-dot-com

Google J&B

J&B Archives

Buy Reason and Persuasion!

S&O @ J&B

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Squid and Owl. Make your own badge here.

Reason and Persuasion Illustrations

  • www.flickr.com

J&B Have A Tipjar

  • Search Now:

  • Buy a couple books, we get a couple bucks.
Blog powered by Typepad

J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)