Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Flailing About

In The Nation, of all places, William Deresiewicz scans the MLA job listings for a clue to what ails the teaching of literature. This is an acceptable form of intellectual inquiry these days, particularly among the kulturkampfers, though I have to say it doesn't seem much more rigorous than the areas of study it's usually intended to attack.

His first complaint is that there's an overemphasis on minority literature, which means that people who haven't studied it are going to have a hard time finding honest work.

[Y]ou can be a brilliant young scholar, from a top program, but if you're an expert in Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, or Malamud, Bellow and Roth, or Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, or all of them plus Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mailer, Salinger, Capote, Kerouac, Burroughs, Updike, Chandler, Cheever, Heller, Gore Vidal, Cormac McCarthy and God's own novelist himself, Vladimir Nabokov, plus Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, but not in African-American or ethnic American fiction, then there are a lot of jobs you just aren't going to get.
To which one is tempted to reply, "Boo fucking hoo." There was a time - a long, long time, which overlaps to a great extent with our own - when the idea of "minority literature" was virtually a contradiction in terms; we have quite a ways to go before we're in any danger of overcompensating. More to the point, there's no harm in having a wider frame of reference for what constitutes literature, and for how literature is produced and recognized (or not recognized) as such, whether you're a teacher or a writer. And obviously, courses dedicated to American literature ought by definition to highlight minority writers (Burroughs and Barnes spring to mind, for some weird reason). These are really not difficult concepts.

Deresiewicz goes on to wonder whether these schools might actually be looking to fill gaps in their curriculum, rather than to shoehorn more nigger-lovers into a staff already glutted with them. It's a good question; instead of answering it, he proceeds immediately to safer ground: hatin' on "the purely rhetorical realms of deconstruction":
More revealing in this connection than the familiar identity-groups laundry list, which at least has intellectual coherence, is the whatever-works grab bag: "Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies"; "literature of the immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and technology, and material culture"; "visual culture; cultural studies and theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies." The items on these lists are not just different things--apples and oranges--they're different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions--apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two....There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children's literature, even in something called "digital humanities."
I hear you, man; things are tough all over. Hell, just the other day, I saw this book on nuptial arithmetic. I mean, seriously....WTF is that all about?

As a critique of education, this is about as compelling as Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." I have no doubt that there are problems with American academia, but it's not possible to demonstrate them simply by naming fields you don't understand, or don't care about, and heaping scorn on their terms of art. The subjects listed here are reasonable things to study, in and of themselves, and if evidence really exists that they're "incommensurate" or "flailing about in unrelated directions," Deresiewicz can't be bothered to present it. Instead, he assumes that the average reader will be befuddled enough by the concept of "material culture" to assume that it couldn't possibly have anything to do with literature and technology. Of course, they'd probably be just as confused if you peppered them with concepts out of Plato and Kant and Alfred North Whitehead, the conceptual relations between whom aren't exactly obvious either, and are much less pertinent to everyday life.

The idea that one can sneer at science fiction as some backwater of literature, and offer courses about it as proof that "the profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers," is pretty fucking astonishing too, in this day and age, especially given some of the people who appear on Deresiewicz's list of "important" writers.

Still, it's fairly typical axe-grinding, so far. Here's where the going gets very tricky indeed:
[N]o major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler's Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star--a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom--emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure.
In order to believe this, we'd have to ignore Franco Moretti's literary mapping, and the growth of border studies, and the booming popularity of Donna Haraway and her transhuman ilk, just for starters. Worse, we'd have to ignore the fact that the Internet, with all its intellectual lures and snares, is a post-1990 development and can therefore be said to have given graduate students a new tool, as well as something new to theorize about (digital humanities, for instance).

Also, we'd also have to overlook the fact that any "major new star" might well address issues relating to visual culture, or science fiction, or who knows what non-canonical nonsense. Which means that when a new school does arrive, we'll probably know it mainly because commentators like Deresiewicz will treat the names of courses dedicated to it as proof of our intellectual decline.

Not a bad little racket, all in all.

UPDATE: Phi Beta Cons calls Deresiewicz's grab bag of grievances "damning," and sheds crocodile tears over "the killing of criticism," which as everyone knows had no tendency towards opacity or ideological rigidity until quite recently.

(Illustration from "Skippy" by Percy Crosby.)


Anthony McCarthy said...

William Deresiewicz scans the MLA job listings for a clue to what ails the teaching of literature.

Why would anyone get exercised over what ails the teaching of literature when it's the reading of it that's dying? You wonder how much disinterested reading of some of those authors in that list goes on today? I mean reading not associated with writing papers or themes or dissertations.

Got a feeling that people are reading Gwendolyn Brooks for personal enrichment than are reading most of the other winners of the big name awards of the past.

I'd express some opinions but my iconoclasm quota was all used up earlier tonight at Eschaton.

tears over "the killing of criticism,"

Reminds me of the day when I first went into the lit stacks at the university library and noticed that for most authors the criticism of just about any of the authors required more space than the authors themselves. Why read the criticism when it takes less time to read the author? If the author didn't give you the best clue about what they meant, isn't that a sign of trouble?

res ipsa loquitur said...

Phila, Sorry to go off topic, but thought you'd get a kick out of this. See you at E. -res

Phila said...

Thanks, Res! As a loyal Pharyngula reader, I'd already seen that story, which is indeed funny.

I'm pretty sure I don't have to explain to you where I was coming from in that little spat, or to reiterate that my problem with Dawkins is more academic than ideological (well, that and the fact that I'm sick of seeing RMJ get picked on and misrepresented for making perfectly valid points based on his area of expertise).

But I should add that this argument has taken place many times at Eschaton, with pretty much the same cast of characters, and if this version seemed especially nasty on my end, it's because some of the tactics have gotten very, very old. I don't much mind being yelled at or insulted or called names, but I don't like being willfully misrepresented. So really, it's not even about the actual issue so much as the personalities involved.

Anthony McCarthy said...

I like Atrios and some of his frequent comment posters, but after not going there for several months, trying it again over the past two weeks, I'm done with it. I might read Atrios' posts but the culture on his blog threads has turned competitively conformist. Won't bother commenting on them again.

RMJ is one of the most honest and informed people on the blogs. But the enforced viewpoint has nothing to do with either. It's all about pose.

Phila said...

I might read Atrios' posts but the culture on his blog threads has turned competitively conformist.

I can't blame anyone for getting sick of the dynamic over there, but I honestly don't see the conformism. For one thing, the arguments over there have been going pretty much nonstop for weeks, and while they're not always fun to read, let alone to be involved in, I've found a lot of 'em to be informative. YMMV.

The specific argument Res refers to was a stultifying waste of time, but that was all about one commenter who's had an axe to grind against RMJ for a long time. Almost everyone else pretty much let it go, outside of a couple of comparatively subtle comments. Most people there are smart and reasonable, IMO (our own RIL being a perfect example).

But again, can't blame you for feeling that way. I tend to take long breaks myself.

Anthony McCarthy said...

You have a point, Phila, the comments are remarkably diverse at Eschaton, there are some great people who comment there but if you go past a certain line you will get massive flack and little support from others.

The simple advocacy of realistic pragmatism to advance aspects of leftism in the political context we are actually in, of forgoing childish rhetoric in order to win elections, is enough to set off the system of would be regulation of all discussion. It's as much the lack of support as the reaction itself that has made me reluctantly conclude that there are better uses for my time.

It's not only Eschaton, it's even more true of other places. I've come to conclude that those kinds of blogs aren't a place I want to go anymore.