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An article that gets written all the time, a sentiment that never stops circulating, sifted out of always-on archives of cliché and delivered over for your perusal here.

Digest version: becoming a professional Englisher alienates you from the things that brought you to the business in the first place.

We’ve heard.

Benton polls his undergrads, most grad school bound, on why they love the lit:

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.

Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.

A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.

A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.

Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.

A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”

A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.

A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.

A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.

A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.

A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.

An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.

A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.


But of course, this won’t do. We live, apparently, under the Reign of Theory, which prohibits enjoyment, engagement, anything other than earnest critique in service of the revolution. Benton’s students will learn, the hard way, that life just ain’t all momma reading to you at bedtime, Kerouacian coffeehouse, a precocious Middlemarch devouring under the covers, flashlight.

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that’s why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

Here’s the thing. I’m not sure I understand the equation between theory and dour-faced analysis, politburo-distributed graph-paper writing. Seems to me, theory gets blamed on both ends – it produces irrational exuberant poesy-as-criticism and staid, bureaucratic boilerplate at the same time. As everyone already knows, but for some reason can’t bring themselves to say, is that if Benton’s students reach grad school and find themselves bored and frustrated and manufacturing work that fails to live up to their initial literary aspirations, it won’t be because of theory but rather the new archival / historicist turn in literary studies, that silent but mass counter-revolution that has settled on the accumulation of fact and the castration of purpose to produce inelegant works that sift through the dusty corners of the library, producing nothing new but lots and lots of old.

Whatever. My advice for Benton is the following. When your students bring up these feelings, why not help them to develop them into workable projects that move from idle announcement of interest toward self-aware analysis of it. No, no one wants to hear about your momma’s lap, but examinations of relation between the aesthetic and the commodified alienation of literary works would be valuable. Point them towards the question of the aesthetic, a question that partakes of all of the positions that they have here espoused, and suggest that work through the what and why and to what end of it.

Mooning on about how lovely was the novel they read when they were a kid, no, isn’t going to work. But working toward an understanding of how this strange magic trick – so out of step with an irrationally rational world, so out of touch with the normative economism that fills our lungs with every breath – of a bunch of words that creates a feeling (happiness, warmth, togetherness, isolation, discomfort, desire, disinterested interest, egotistic fire, full wallet of cult capital, whatever) works is something that not only needs to be undertaken, but will find acceptance if artfully done.

(A quick example: “A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas’ might yield something like this, and probably even better, were the student encouraged properly, rather than told at every turn that the question is an either/or, literary interest / abstract politicizing.)

For the field of literature, after theory and during the rise of this new empiricist reaction – a field which currently buys the solid ground but forever fails to build – could use some new blood, self-aware, and ready to take poems and novels as something other than an archive of social data, an archive they were forced to use, when so many other, better archives exist, because they made the mistake of getting into English.

As always, and like never before, we today face the question of the value of literature – and of the aesthetic more generally. We need to know why it is that we return to these textual objects, and what sort of energies might be borrowed from them, what sort of doors they have closed and which they might open. And, in particular, why we are so unwilling to do without them.

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 17, 2006 at 1:24 pm

17 Responses

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  1. I don’t know if it’s been a tacit revolution really. What you describe, rather too contemptuously, I think, given that it allows the generalizations you invite, has been the default mode of literary studies since it was called “philology.” I’ve noticed that people tend to assume that there was a monolithic, largely new critical orientation to American literary studies before the Johns Hopkins conference, a notion whose disabuse requires no more than a few minutes browsing around in JSTOR (a bracing exercise against the accompanying thoughtless Whiggery as well).

    Jonathan

    July 17, 2006 at 1:56 pm

  2. It really doesn’t matter to me, Jonathan, whether the current mode is just philology reborn. It doesn’t matter if it has deep roots in the field. Fine, what we have now is a counter-revolution, a return to the status quo. Sure, whatever. What I am interested in is the fact that 1) the current mode of writing neglects the question of literature as literature and 2) is almost entirely useless – has lost the battle of the front table at the book store. * Who in their right mind would read lit crit today, unless they themselves were a practitioner? 3) – more complicated – the abandonment of the aesthetic and concession in the fight for pertinence has led to a narrowness of scope and aim, or is it the other way around?

    In your last sentence, don’t you mean “after the Johns Hopkins conference”? Either way, I think the wellspring of my work, theoretically speaking, comes both from new crit and theory, or the place where the one dissolves into the other. I’m having trouble following you here: what would I find were I to browse JSTOR? Philology? I’d bet! Works as unengaging as those produced now? For sure!

    It’s been tacit not in the English departments themselves, but in broader intellectual culture, one of the symptoms of which is the existence of sites a la the Valve, many of whose contributors haven’t gotten the memo that theory is already passé. No – the folks that I work with – they are aware of the situation.

    it allows the generalizations you invite

    Really? Where are they? When you blur it this way, into philology, of course the game becomes easier. But my problem is with the drift of crit in the last 10 years, not with Erich Auerbach – philologist, yes, but read the last pages of Mimesis and try to imagine someone saying that sort of thing now.

    * I understand that this might be a controversial way to define “usefulness.” And it’s half tongue-in-cheek. But only half. Let me put it this way: the literary perspective has the potential to bring forth findings that are useful, peritent, that have a value beyond the particularly “scholarly.” Right now, it’s not happening. It did, perhaps 20 years ago, for better or worse.

    AWP

    July 17, 2006 at 4:36 pm

  3. There has been little change and certainly no counter-revolution, is the issue. The majority of literary scholars have worked in the same mode for a very long time. All in all, this is a good thing. Editions, backgrounds, explications–you need these things.

    I meant “before.” What JSTOR makes convenient to see and what particularly the not-so hypothetical literary student with an undifferentiated view of the field’s past needs to see is that things have remained much the same despite all progressivist claims to the contrary.

    Do you emulate Jameson in your non-scholarly, literary work, politically informing and aesthetically sensate? How does Jameson fare with the non-specialist? As a fount of attitudes?

    Jonathan

    July 17, 2006 at 5:09 pm

  4. Right, Jonathan. I guess I aim not to lodge myself squarely in the middle of the “majority,” but rather try to do something a bit new. Not purely new, of course. Editions, backgrounds, explications are good things. They’re just not the final horizon of my work. (Although there’s way more than enough “explication” going on – trying to trim that back a bit. Grows like kudzu, the close reading does).

    Whether or not the current state of affairs is simply a resumption of the status quo, you’d have to admit that there’s a certain “don’t go there” moving along with things now, vis a vis theory? You really think there isn’t an ounce of reaction going on? I see it, hear it, have myself undoubted interiorized it. It’s there. And it is useful, in doses. But only when aimed carefully.

    I don’t “emulate” Jameson, I don’t think, but wouldn’t be ashamed of myself if I did. He’s a very fine reader of modernist prose, and I’ve never seen him work without purpose, which is, yes, what I’m calling for. He keeps the question of the aesthetic front and center – never forgets what kind of text he’s dealing with. All very good. And I think he’s done quite well, thank you very much, with the non-specialist crowd. I’m not really interested in debating the merits of the Postmodernism book – and its openess to misinterpretation – but certainly he sold a few of those, and not all to English grad students.

    Oh, and by the way, my work is deeply literary, but is certainly not non-scholarly. It just doesn’t open the door to the archive and stop there. I’m not sure it’s “politically informing,” but I’d like it to become so, perhaps with the next book. But it’s very, very, very complicated to get that right. To think what sort of political informing literature and the study of it is truly capable of…

    As a fount of attitudes?

    Oh, I think both FJ and I are up to a bit more than that. The utopia piece that I linked to? Just attitudes? No, I don’t think so.

    AWP

    July 17, 2006 at 10:04 pm

  5. I don’t think you parsed my “fount of attitudes” comment correctly, referring, as it does, to those disappointed skimmers of the Postmodernism book. Now my work is profoundly scholarly but certainly not non-literary. I think it must have a temporal and dialectical relation to your own.

    Jonathan

    July 18, 2006 at 12:35 am

  6. Glad to be of temporal and dialectical service! Have fun with that scholarship!

    And glad to see you are in a better mood…

    AWP

    July 18, 2006 at 12:41 am

  7. Hey, are you going to MSA?

    AWP

    July 18, 2006 at 12:45 am

  8. Not this year.

    Jonathan

    July 18, 2006 at 10:40 am

  9. Seems to me, theory gets blamed on both ends – it produces irrational exuberant poesy-as-criticism and staid, bureaucratic boilerplate at the same time.

    Of course it does. No one argues honestly. Nor do I think you do, here:

    For the field of literature, after theory and during the rise of this new empiricist reaction – a field which currently buys the solid ground but forever fails to build – could use some new blood, self-aware, and ready to take poems and novels as something other than an archive of social data, an archive they were forced to use, when so many other, better archives exist, because they made the mistake of getting into English.

    Easy to say, really, but why I don’t just ask you why you went into English when what you really want to do is political, and thus would be better served “out on the streets,” as an activist, instead of in the classroom. (Sure, you can make some difference in the classroom, but nearly so much, nor nearly so tangible.)

    I know you answer, and it parallels mine to the question above:

    Literature provides unique knowledge about distant times, the kind of things you can’t find in archives. I know you know that–and understand that it doesn’t fit in your polemic–but really, I don’t think you had a chance in Hell of producing a coherent argument while responding to that article. Not your fault.

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    July 18, 2006 at 10:42 pm

  10. Sorry if that sounds bitter, but between this and the Long Sunday thread, it’s like nuance, nuance, nuance FUCK I can’t stop my knee

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    July 18, 2006 at 11:02 pm

  11. Easy to say, really, but why I don’t just ask you why you went into English when what you really want to do is political, and thus would be better served “out on the streets,” as an activist, instead of in the classroom.

    Oh no you don’t.

    First of all, I’m just not fit for the job. This isn’t a good thing about me, but I’m all wrong for activism. I know it’s terrible but:

    1) Fox News should mic me during political marches. Oh the under the breath stuff. I’m just awful…

    2) I actually did try to work for a political campaign once. Stanley Aronowitz’s 2002 run for NYS governor on the Green Party ticket. I went to a single meeting, and nearly had a Flaubert-type coniption fit / grand mal seizure during and afterward. Not Stanley’s fault – a fantastic guy by the way – he wasn’t at the meeting.

    Just not cut out for it. Counter-productive I’d be.

    (And yes, I know this perhaps skews my work somehow… I try to control for it or whatever…)

    Yadda yadda. I could go further down this line, the fact that I certainly am, in many tangible ways, invested in literature in and of itself as well. Politics as a horizon, but fascination (like Benton’s kids) with the works themselves. Etc etc…

    Literature provides unique knowledge about distant times, the kind of things you can’t find in archives.

    It certainly does. I just don’t think the kind of criticism that I’m complaining about quite gets what it is.

    I don’t think you had a chance in Hell of producing a coherent argument while responding to that article

    Not so. I mean, yes, the article truly sucks. But this idea that “theory” automatically runs against literary interest of the most elemental sort, that is something we need to talk about, I think. And what to do with these aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic categories the kids are bring forward – that we really need to talk about and urgently! And so I talk.

    You’d have to admit, the kids would have to check that stuff at the door were they to join the school you’ve joined. But I haven’t! And it’s worked so far… Those “interests” that they espouse – that’s exactly what I’m working on now. My next book!

    AWP

    July 18, 2006 at 11:08 pm

  12. But this idea that “theory” automatically runs against literary interest of the most elemental sort, that is something we need to talk about, I think.

    I’m sure we would, if I (or anyone else) believed that. Seriously, for reasons I’m writing about in another window, I find the whole response an exercise in self-congratulation, an excuse for everyone to pat themselves on the back, feel like they belong to the party of right … only, you know, whatever. You don’t need to stand in opposition to this tripe to prove your worth, and you demean yourself in doing so, really. Some of the other commenters on the LS thread I can understand, but you?

    Nope.

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    July 18, 2006 at 11:32 pm

  13. Scott,

    I am not simply “standing in opposition” to the article. I am making a point. I believe that this rather stupid article contains the seeds of an important discussion – about how Benton’s kids should be taught…

    I believe that our discipline is confused about what to do with the aesthetic. Why? Because it really, truly is! I don’t think I need to detail the troubled history of the topic, emerging of of Eagleton’s book, Derrida’s “Economimesis,” De Man the turn to historicism. Come on. You know what I’m talking about! “Beauty” isn’t something we are any longer able to discuss. I’d like to change that… but it’s not easy to do so, particularly in light of the fact that I’m sympathetic to the political valences of the anti-aesthetic moves…

    AWP

    July 18, 2006 at 11:41 pm

  14. Some of the other commenters on the LS thread I can understand, but you?

    Careful now… I’ve not engaged in name-calling here. Do you really want me to start whacking away at your group blog?

    AWP

    July 18, 2006 at 11:44 pm

  15. You know what I’m talking about! “Beauty” isn’t something we are any longer able to discuss. I’d like to change that… but it’s not easy to do so, particularly in light of the fact that I’m sympathetic to the political valences of the anti-aesthetic moves…

    I’m sitting here staring at a copy of Michael Clark’s Revenge of the Aesthetic—conveniently linked, although I could mail you a copy, if you’re interested—which contains essays Fish, Adams, Donoghue, Hillis, Derrida, &c. They’re not invested in “beauty,” but they are interested in aesthetics … and the Joycean in me can’t help but distinguish between the two. I love Joyce for his sublime complexity, not the beauty of his prose. Not that I deny it, mind you; only that it pales in comparison to the beauty of his thought. So I don’t think the matter’s dead—and if it is, you know as well as I that the blame can be spread around equally. Canon revision is a messy, dishonest business, in which everyone agrees with the inclusion of Ellison and James, but after that, not so much. Dreiser? Wright?

    I’ve not engaged in name-calling here. Do you really want me to start whacking away at your group blog?

    You could, but I don’t think you’d get the same mileage. There’s Jonathan, sure, I’ll grant you that. (ducks) But now that Bauerlein’s left, I don’t think—I don’t think we should continue this particular conversation here. Via email, perhaps?

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    July 19, 2006 at 12:19 am

  16. Yeah, I’ve looked at the Clark. I should look again. But this is really the key:

    I love Joyce for his sublime complexity, not the beauty of his prose. Not that I deny it, mind you; only that it pales in comparison to the beauty of his thought.

    Totally! “Beauty” is never a word that really works for the novel, is it? That’s exactly what I’m interested in. And, maybe, if you replaced the word “complexity” with its opposite, with “simplicity.” Weird, no? (I just got done with my radical simplicity of Joyce chapter, hopefully finishing the first book… we’ll see…)

    Yes, the aesthetic comes up every once in awhile, but to my mind improperly (they’re talking about something like the aesthetic but not) or unconvincingly (they’re talking about the aesthetic but in a foolish sort of way). There’s real work to be done. And no, we still as a field don’t know what to do with the category.

    AWP

    July 19, 2006 at 12:38 am

  17. (they’re talking about the aesthetic but in a foolish sort of way)

    “foolish” isn’t really le mot juste. I should have said “empty.” Often, the analysis is smartly done, just goes nowhere…

    AWP

    July 19, 2006 at 12:44 am


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