Saturday, January 31, 2004
Litany on Death of Theory
Adieu, farewell mind’s bliss,
All truth uncertain is;
Fond are theory’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am slick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Zizek himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
Humanism swift is nigh;
I am slick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Theory is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour:
Brightness falls from Bataille,
Theses wither and die,
Dust hath closed Social Text;
Representations is next.
I am slick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am slick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
“Under the set-aside scheme, farmers are paid for not growing crops. Why not pay academics for not writing articles? The state is already buying up the products at subvention prices and putting huge quantities of them into cold storage: it funds the university libraries, which buy the journals and stack them away unread. It is time for the academic system to mimic the agricultural one even more closely. Dons should be paid a bonus for every year in which they do not publish an article.
Conversely, a rising scale of financial penalties should attach to every article or book that they produce. Pseudonym detection squads would sniff out fraudsters, like the satellites which monitor Sicilian olive groves. This approach, combined with the ‘three best publications per decade’ rule, would ensure that rational academics would spend less time writing and more time thinking.”
Noel Malcolm, Prospect online August 1996.
“As for faculty rank, my friend and fellow teacher, David Daube... has the best idea: everyone [should be] appointed to fullest professorships, and then, for each article, book, review or monograph published, demotion, with proportional reduction in salary as well as rank. Try to imagine the blessings - the silences, the stopped presses.”
Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers, 1972.
Twenty years after Rieff wrote about it in America, Malcolm comes up with the same idea in England - a system of powerful incentives and penalties designed to get university professors to shut up. Although the two schemes differ in some ways, both propose to invert the established publications-based promotional paradigm in the U.S. and abroad, so that now the more you publish, the less rank and salary you earn. To be sure, Malcolm’s is the more serious proposal, since it allows three first-rate publications per decade, while Daube’s takes a hardline approach and punishes every peep. But you get the idea. Nobody’s really kidding here.
I don’t know about England, but in the States nothing succeeds like excess. It’s as impossible to imagine English professors slowing the relentless expansion of their twenty-page syllabae omniae and curricula vitae as it is to imagine someone who drives a Cadilliac Escalade not somewhere along the line buying a Hummer. We didn’t get big and rich by curbing our appetites, and the U.S. News and World Report school rankings don’t reward restraint.
So if, as it seems, our literature departments are being seriously overcome by fumes from foucault factories and factory outlets, what are they to do?
I have only the most modest of suggestions, and that involves thinking a bit about the values of relative silence -- the advantages, as I’ve suggested in an earlier post, of replacing the huckster model of academic life with a more monastic one.
Let us, before we get to writing with restraint, consider the idea of speaking with restraint. J.M. Coetzee, the most recent recipient of the literature Nobel Prize, belongs, as David Sexton writes in This is London, “to that small band of heroic writers who - without being as reclusive as Pynchon or Salinger - have declined to make themselves available for publicity purposes.” Coetzee himself puts it this way: “To me, truth is related to silence, to reflection, to the practice of writing. Speech is not a fount of truth but a pale and provisional version of writing.” When another Nobelist, Samuel Beckett, told his wife he’d won the award, her response was “Quelle catastrophe.” Yet Beckett was able to retain his privacy and his integrity: “Not once was his face seen on the front cover of a glossy magazine,” writes John Fletcher in About Beckett, “below a banner headline announcing: ‘The publicity-shy dramatist talks to us exclusively about the starstudded production of X, opening this week at the Y Theatre on Z Avenue...’”
There is something here having to do with the protection of one’s individuality,
one’s private being as it assimilates and expresses the world unadulterated and
undistracted by the distortions and superficialities of public life. The reclusive writer Bill Gray, in Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, begs to be left alone by a world of journalists because “I have my own cosmology of pain.”
(Note that it is seduction not just by publicity but also by the comforts of America, comforts I’ve talked about a bit on this blog already, that Gray seems to fear.)
As for writing, keep in mind that writers like Beckett, Coetzee, and Bellow (another Nobel recipient) are often criticized - in our public world of excess - for not writing enough. “When’s his next book coming out? Why hasn’t he sold film rights to the last one?” These are the questions of interest to our world, and all writers feel the ego and money pressure of them to some extent. It is a measure of their integrity, and likewise the integrity of the academic writer, to resist them.
Friday, January 30, 2004
OLD SCHOOL DAYS
I was at The Medici, a popular Hyde Park restaurant, and Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom were dining at a table nearby. This would’ve been the early ‘eighties or something. Bloom and Bellow were basically a couple of hulking guys hunched toward one another in the smoky air of the place. They appeared to be giggling conspiratorially as they surveyed the black-clothed students around them. And why not. At various tables pallid scholarettes puffed on the Gauloises they’d brought back from junior year abroad. At my own table three jewish american princesses bitched about migraines and mittelschmerzes. I kept breaking away from Beth’s hypochondria and Randi’s irregular periods to peer at MM. Nobel Prize and International Best Seller.
It was clearly much more fun to be at their table. Every now and then Bloom would totally lose it and guffaw in a mad guttering manner, cigarette smoke streaming out of his mouth. Bellow’s big eyes took in the whole room: you could see prose rising out of his head. “Although I was Ravelstein’s senior by a good many years,” Bellow writes in Ravelstein, the novel about their friendship, “we were close friends. There were sophomoric elements in my character as there were in his, and these leveled the ground and evened things out.” “He did not,” Bellow goes on to write about Bloom, “accept dullness and boredom. Nor was depression tolerated. He did not put up with low moods.” And again, later in the novel: “It was our sense of what was funny that brought us together, but that [is] an anemic way to put it. A joyful noise - immenso giubilo - an outsize joint agreement picked us up together, and it would get you nowhere to try to formulate it.”
Immenso miserio, on the other hand, was the order of the day at my table and in graduate school culture generally....in “intellectual” culture generally. People talk about how wretched an experience graduate school is, but they forget that the affectation of despair remains highly existentially desirable throughout one’s life if one is to be taken as smart. Only idiots who don’t know anything are happy. Smart people, deep into depressive analytics, drag ass.
Humanities types in particular often spend their entire careers in an anxious unhappy state in which everything they see and do and hear about is fraught.
Fraught, fraught, fraught.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I woke up one morning a few years ago from an hysterically funny dream about me, my mother, and a pair of underwear. The details aren’t important - what’s important is that I woke up giggling and stayed pretty amused most of the day. I was chatting that afternoon with a colleague of mine - she’s now a well-known critical theorist - about this and that, and at some point I mentioned the dream, thinking to amuse her.
As I finished recounting it, I noticed that rather than laugh at the dream’s absurdity she looked as if I’d just told her I had cancer.
Her eyes went wide - wide with pity - and she was clearly fumbling for the right
words to say in this excruciating situation. How much of my sick unconscious I’d just unwittingly revealed to her! The murderous relationship to Mom. The paralyzingly ambivalent attitude to “underwear” -- ...under... world... under>... where... wear... we’re ...under... The unsettling puns discernable in even a cursory Lacanian reading of so thick a dreamscape were best not gone into...
Despite her efforts to be sympathetic and reassuring, my colleague betrayed her distress at how far into denial I’d gone... to turn this shattering material into a joke...!
She gradually slunk out of my office -- overcome, I guess, by the weight of repressed psychic material I had thoughtlessly transferred to her shoulders --
and never looked at me in the same way again.
For Bloom and Bellow, I began to understand, fraught was bullshit. It was the
surface of things that counted. It’s like that wonderful passage in Wallace Shawn’s performance piece, The Fever: “My feelings! My thoughts! The incredible history of my feelings and my thoughts could fill up a dozen leather-bound books," Shawn's affluent neurotic narrator says. "But the story of my life - my behavior, my actions - now that's a slim volume, and I've never read it." Bellow and Bloom were sitting in that restaurant like a couple of eighteenth century satirists, pleasuring themselves at the sight of people being both ridiculous and moving. For them, the world wasn’t fraught; it was comic. Oh, tragicomic, to be sure - but the emphasis was on the comic. Bloom in particular had a certain sympathetic interest in what made people odd. Being amusingly odd himself, he tended to study the vulnerabilities that shaped most people into something only slightly less odd than he.
From reading these two and watching them around campus (I never took a class with either of them), I began to intuit that there were roughly two sorts of people in the world. There were the sort Bloom as Ravelstein calls “self-glamorized” -- people who spin a certain image of themselves out to the world and therefore never achieve authenticity; and there were the sort that express a genial acceptance of themselves (and other people) with all of their flaws and absurdities. This latter sort express as well a mature acceptance of the unpleasant contract we’ve got to make with life altogether. They’re not going to let the business of being human get them down; on the contrary, they’re going to live fully and lucidly for as long as they can. And as for the opinion of others, by which the self-glamorized are ruled - phooey.
One way to attain this advanced degree of insouciance relative to the coercive pull of Other People is to refine in oneself a strong sense of autonomy. Christopher Hitchens puts it well in a recent interview:
“I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated. If only because all these processes are actually undertaken by the elite and leave us all, finally, voting in the passive voice and believing that we're using our own opinions or concepts when in fact they have been imposed upon us.”
How to become this intellectual combatant? Clearly you need models; and at the University of Chicago Bloom and Bellow were two of quite a few. These were people who understood that what Orwell in 1984 calls “prolefeed” and what Hitchens here describes as manufactured and manipulated public opinion, can be understood in the context of high as well as popular culture. The gray net of abstraction that hypertheorizing in the humanities has thrown over reality is ... well, call it “aristofeed.” It’s prolefeed for the elite.
In one scene in Bellow’s novel, Ravelstein insists that his friend Chick (the Bellow character) give up his practice of welcoming the motley crew that shows up at the university wanting to talk to him during his office hours: “He said [Chick remembers of Ravelstein] that all kinds of creatures imposed on me and wasted my time.” But, Chick explains, “In my trade [Chick, like Bellow, is a writer] you have to make more allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account - to avoid hard-edged judgments. All this refraining may resemble naivete. But it isn’t quite that. In art you become familiar with due process. You can’t simply write people off or send them to hell.” Chick takes regular “humanity baths.” His attitude toward each personality that presents itself to him is accepting, searching, open, intrigued.
I met with Bellow on one memorable occasion, in his office. I was part of the motley. Although Bellow was pushing seventy at the time, and was, I can see in
retrospect through the lens of Ravelstein, experiencing a dispiriting marriage, he was vigorous, handsome, trim, natty, witty, edgy, courtly, intriguingly nasty, and overtly sexually curious about me. Sitting in his office, located within an improbably Rapunzelesque tower, I wasn’t offended when he leered: I enjoyed the mild perversity of the scene. There was an aura of radical free possibility about it that exhilarated me, and I recall it all vividly. Below the tower’s gothic windows, the trees on the Midway flailed in the wind off the lake as we discussed whether he’d join the committee of readers on my dissertation (he made it clear that if I really pushed, he would. I didn’t push.). The atmosphere was altogether tightly life-packed. “The gloss the sun puts on the surroundings - the triumph of life, so to speak, the flourishing of everything makes me despair,” writes Chick, describing his sense of inadequacy in the face of Paris and its high-noon glories. “I’ll never be able to keep up with all the massed hours of life-triumphant.” None of us will; but Bellow and Bloom evoked for me at a particular place and time the tireless pursuit of intense life and the inevitable falling short of it.
OLD SCHOOL DAYS
“Do not send your children to the University of Chicago where they will grow up to become warmongers like Wolfowitz or totalitarians like Ashcroft! Chicago is an intellectual and moral cesspool.” Counterpunch, August 2003.
“Saul Bellow’s mind is a fetid enclosure. [Ravelstein is] shockingly bad, [and its portrayal of Bellow’s ex-wife is] the most cruel violation imaginable.” Garry Wills
“Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is both malodorously reactionary and - as a culturally conservative screed coming from a closeted homosexual - sickeningly hypocritical.” [I made this last one up; no time to Google an anti-Bloom shit-fit this morning.]
When the way left gets mad, it gets way mad. And few symbolic locations seem to madden it more than my old school, the U of C, with its literary (Bellow), philosophical (Bloom), and political (Wolfowitz) non-left luminaries. One of these three is dead and the other two are elsewhere, but it doesn’t seem to matter -- looked at from the left, even the long-shriveled Leo Strauss strides like a colossus along the Midway.
It’s different when you’re there. I remember years ago heading down 55th Street in Hyde Park with my boyfriend, and passing a hunched figure walking shakily along the sidewalk.
“That poor homeless man...” I murmured.
“That’s Alan Gewirth,” said my boyfriend. “Current President of the American
Still - was I living a kind of childish fantasy in Hyde Park? Did I think I was gamboling about in a bright meadow while I was really shut up inside a privy vault?
Some people on the left seem to think Chicago at least used to be an okay place:
Robert Silver, founder and editor of the New York Review of Books, recalls his undergraduate days there in a recent interview in the Guardian: “It was a marvelous school because everyone had to study the same things, in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences and mathematics. So everyone had read Plato and Freud, and Marx and St Augustine. It created an atmosphere with all these veterans coming back. I was 15; my roommate at one period was a bomber pilot who was 30. We all had to learn genetics; we all had to learn something about physics. They treated you completely as a grown-up.”
But no doubt for a lot of people the authoritarian curriculum Silver describes (not to
mention that bloodcurdling bomber!), and the institution’s indifference to the distinction between tough grownups and sensitive young people, still condemns the place...
Anyway, since the University of Chicago has taken on a rather iconic right-wing status lately (I haven’t even mentioned their reptilian economists touting baby trafficking and anything else that’ll make a buck), I thought I’d suggest, in the second part of this post, some of what I found so valuable about my time there - none of it having anything to do with political wings. I recount these incidents and moments of understanding not because they happened to me, but because I think they convey something of what can be gotten from a reasonably serious undergraduate or graduate university experience.
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
I’ve written a lot in University Diaries about this country’s anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism is a fine old American tradition, and probably accounts for most of our technological superiority to the rest of the world. All rich industrialized nations need an elite of restless competitive highly paid tinkerers, their minds cleared of all content beyond synapses and cartridges and microchips. Without a critical mass of people who couldn’t give a shit about what’s in books, you’d never be able to create and maintain the sort of wildly successful country this one is. I have no trouble with this form of anti-intellectualism in America, and indeed I recognize that quaint little bookish people like me only enjoy the leisure and relative affluence we do because day and night hebephrenic techies are scooting about their cages finding ways to make our Sears Kenmore appliances work more quietly.
It’s the form of anti-intellectualism one finds in secondary schools and universities in this country that’s more of a problem. We know that the low-expectation, pandering, therapeutic mentality I’ve noted on this blog is profoundly anti-intellectual and accounts to an impressive degree for the in-the-toilet status of real thought in the humanities today. But it’s rare that you find so pure and thorough an expression of this suicidal form of anti-intellectualism - the hatred of thought within the academy itself - that you do in the letter from a high school principal that a failed job candidate in the Atlanta school system just received (via joannejacobs.com):
“Recently, I interviewed with a school in one of the metro Atlanta counties, only to receive an e-mail from the principal stating, ‘Though your qualifications are quite impressive, I regret to inform you that we have selected another candidate. It was felt that your demeanor and therefore presence in the classroom would serve as an unrealistic expectation as to what high school students could strive to achieve or become. However, it is highly recommended that you seek employment at the collegiate level; there your intellectual comportment would be greatly appreciated. Good luck.’"
Yummy. This one’s a real full-plate special. There’s the game try at teaparty diction
(“demeanor,” “comportment”) and the regal passive voice (“It was felt...” “It is highly recommended”) which quickly degenerates into shabby befuddled blather (“...as to what high schools students could strive to achieve or become...”). There’s the cheap thrill of observing a high school principal rejecting a job candidate for having high expectations. But best of all there’s the particular use of the word “intellectual” in the altogether marvelous penultimate sentence - the sentence just before the principal’s moving and sincere expression of best wishes at the very end. That sentence merits its own paragraph.
What was it again? Oh yes - However, it is highly recommended that you seek
employment at the collegiate level; there your intellectual comportment would be greatly appreciated. Am I being over-sensitive or is there the teeniest bit of irony somewhere in there? ... somewhere starting around “your intellectual comportment”? Or maybe before - something smells funny in the use of the word “highly,” no? Or “seek”? Whatever. Let’s press our Google translator key and see what this looks like in English... Hm, it says here You pretentious little fuck. If you think you can walk in here and use trisyllabic words and subordinate clauses you can kiss my ass. There’s a university down the street where they speak Snob.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
An Addendum to “Fisking Rhonda Garelick” [see post below/scroll down a bit]:
An Example of the Right Kind of Wakeful Political Literacy
The cover of this Sunday’s New York Times magazine seemed all wrong - a teasing, prurient shot up the dress of a pudgy young girl as she sat on a bed. The language of the featured article as I scanned it in a rapid, aversive way was all fevered sensationalism - something about how thousands of underage sex slaves are stashed away in bland suburban homes up and down this land of ours...
Sex slaves in America! The language reminded me of the unfortunate Richard Berendzen incident about ten years ago. Once the popular, mediagenic president of American University in Washington DC, Berendzen was caught leaving rambling messages about his sex slave fantasies on the phone machines of arbitrarily chosen women. In an ass-saving effort, Berendzen published a quickie Mom Sexually Abused Me book, but it didn’t work. (Today he would have gone on David Letterman and laughed along with the audience as he read a top ten list which turned his most humiliating lusts into cheap jokes.) He fled the scene for awhile and has since resurfaced as a simple unadorned astronomy professor...
But that’s another story. What I mean to get across about Sunday’s story in the NYT is that from the get-go it smelled to me like pure unadulterated shit (to quote the superannuated rock star in the film Love, Actually). Not that poor teenagers aren’t pressed into prostitution here and abroad - I know that they are. But that the lurid accounts and hypertrophic claims in the magazine were... well... off in some way...
I didn’t pursue the matter - visually and stylistically, the article even at a cursory glance felt malsain: heavy-breathing, pushy, untrustworthy. So I didn’t read it.
How nice then that Andrew Sullivan and two other news bloggers (see
andrewsullivan.com), having felt the same way, decided to pursue the matter for me. All of them do a close reading of the piece and reveal a questionably sourced, anecdotal, overwritten piece of journalism which at the very least fails to reveal what it claims to reveal.
I’ve studied and written about prostitution, and I think it’s a sadly ignored phenomenon here and abroad. But my emotional desire that it be brought out of the shadows does not extend to a willingness to certify any press treatment of it. Indeed sexed up accounts like the one in today’s paper undermine efforts to think seriously about it. Sullivan and the others who pursued this article were displaying wakeful political literacy.
UPDATE January 30 04: A Boy Named... SUE
The merde's hit the ventilateur on the NYT sex slaves story -- all sorts of observers are dissecting it and finding problems with its claims (see Jack Shafer's recent articles in Slate online). Among other things, it turns out that a primary informant has multiple personalities disorder... But anyway, the writer's certainly all pulled together - he's apparently gonna sue the shit out of at least one of his detractors...
Monday, January 26, 2004
In a recent posting to the weblog Planned Obsolescence, Scott McLemee, an award-winning writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, touches on virtually every one of the characteristics of the genus Humanities Scholar that I've tried to identify on this blog. See if you can spot them all [his remarks were occasioned by the response of quite a few English professors to a mildly mocking little piece about the MLA Convention he wrote for the Chronicle]:
“I have been repeatedly called insulting by people who sometimes begin to froth a bit while calling me an idiot, a homophobe, a failed academic, etc. The latter in particular is amusing. It tends to confirm one's darkest suspicions about the insular narcissism of people whose chief virtue is not intellectual seriousness but a certain docility (as Bourdieu puts it) in their relationship with institutions.
Now, that's not meant as a blanket denunciation of academics. (Some of my best friends, etc.) In fact, I spend about 99 percent of my time reading scholarly work, and writing about it in such a fashion as to make it better understood -- not simply beyond the academy, but within it. To be candid, I do wonder sometimes whether it is worth the trouble. The lack of curiosity, let alone intellectual vitality, among academics is often really astonishing. Maybe it's just exhaustion? Or rather, the ennui of life as alienated cogs in bureaucratic engines?
Anyway, once in a while, I will write with tongue in cheek. The effect, it seems, is to bring out paranoia, in full blaze. An item of perhaps 400 words is part of the "anti-intellectual" jihad of "hate" against long-suffering professors? For what it is worth, the whole point of my little article was to suggest that some MLA participants themselves appear to have entered a kind of symbiotic relationship with the media, giving papers [ridiculous] titles precisely in an effort to win that little moment in the spotlight. Hence the idea of giving them the red carpet treatment through an awards ceremony, a la the Oscars.
Not one person seems to have detected that implicit element of criticism within the piece. (It seems a lot more damning than pointing out that professors are sometimes would-be hipsters etc.) Calling it "anti-intellectual" reveals a really impoverished conception of the life of the mind.”
“The university’s definition of sexual misconduct mandates that each participant obtains and gives consent in each instance of sexual activity. Consent is an affirmative decision to engage in mutually acceptable sexual activity given by clear actions or words. It is an informed decision made freely and actively by all parties. Relying solely upon non-verbal communication can lead to miscommunication. It is important not to make assumptions; if confusion or ambiguity on the issue of consent arises anytime during the sexual interaction, it is essential that each participant stops and clarifies, verbally, willingness to continue. Students should understand that consent may not be inferred from silence, passivity, or lack of active resistance alone. Furthermore, a current or previous dating or sexual relationship is not sufficient to constitute consent, and consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity. Being intoxicated does not diminish one’s responsibility to obtain consent. Conduct will be considered “without consent” if no clear consent, verbal or nonverbal, is given. It should be noted that in some situations an individual’s ability to freely consent is taken away by another person or circumstance. Examples include, but are not limited to, when an individual is intoxicated, “high,” scared, physically or psychologically pressured or forced, passed out, intimidated, coerced, mentally or physically impaired, beaten, threatened, isolated, or confined.” [New Duke University Student Sex Guidelines]
With what sad steps, O Love, I climb’st thy thighs;
How unambiguous, and how unmistakably ready to stop at any time my face --
For ‘tis now decreed, that e’en in ducal place
The busy archer must make unequivocally clear he won’t - if at any time you say you
don’t want him to - his sharp arrow let fly.
Sure if that long with Love acquainted eyes
Can judge of Love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks, thy languish’t grace,
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
And yet today by Duke’s decree
We scorn the evidence of eye and lip,
The flush’d cheek, the fever’d grip,
And judge nothing without clear verbal authorization.
Then of this mystery, O moon, tell me:
Is threat'ning Orwellian jargon to be deem’d but want of wit?
Are lawyers up there as proud as here they be?
Do they above say they love love, and yet
Scorn those lovers when they Love possess?
Do they call Passion there nonconsensualness?
Saturday, January 24, 2004
Fisking Rhonda Garelick
An Op/Ed piece in today’s New York Times helps me convey what I’m trying to convey in University Diaries about teaching in contemporary American humanities classrooms.
Rhonda Garelick, a professor of French and Italian, begins by reviewing the plot of the Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile. Women think we’ve come so far from those repressed bygone days, she tut-tuts; but “the troubling 1950’s may not be quite the quaint relic we think they are.”
Based on the disturbing in-class behaviors of many of her female students - behaviors which include dividing women characters in films into “good” and “bad” people (just the way, Garelick writes, the President divides the world into countries which are “with us” and “with the terrorists” - or, I guess, the way audience members might describe the Aileen Wurnos character in the film Monster as “bad” as opposed to “good”), sometimes holding their hands over their mouths when they speak, and sometimes interrupting themselves when it seems to them that they’re not really making an intelligent point - Garelick concludes that today’s college women are just as fearful and unliberated as those ‘fifties girls.
For after all, “when I call them on this” - that is, when Garelick says to a woman student who interrupts herself or who puts her hands in front of her face that she’s displaying “undermining behavior” which reveals that she does not understand “the political ramifications” of her actions - the students look “surprised.”
Garelick thinks they look surprised because someone is being bold enough to ask them to “read their own sexual politics.” But the students are surprised because they are not accustomed to this level of rudeness from strangers. Their mothers of course have been annoying them for years about this or that personal habit - hands in front of the mouth while talking, toying with your hair at the dinner table - but this is the first time a comparative stranger has taken it upon herself to get on their case.
Garelick believes she knows why a young woman might talk with her hands in front of her mouth - it’s political. But maybe she’s wrong. Maybe this young woman’s next class is Intro Psych, and when she puts her hands in front of her mouth her professor in that course says to her, “You put your hands in front of your mouth because you have unresolved oral issues.”
Garelick concludes by complaining that her “attempts to introduce contemporary politics into classroom discussions meet with blank stares.” When she touches on the subject of the baleful Iraqi incursion, she encounters “mostly silence,” which she interprets as “a mix of paralysis and anxiety.” Students resist “wakeful political literacy,” she generously concludes, because “they drink from the same pool of Lethe we all do.”
But her political discourse in her French and Italian classes is met with stares because when students sign up for French and Italian literature they do not expect to spend lots of class time talking about troop levels in Baghdad. Garelick’s students feel, I suspect, neither “paralysis” nor “anxiety” (she misreads them in this way because she has an unevolved therapeutic mentality) - rather, they feel boredom and embarrassment that a woman with a Ph.D. in literature is lecturing them on contemporary geopolitics. They wonder when they are going to get around to reading Madame Bovary.
Charles King, a political science professor at Georgetown University, has written an
essay - “Battling the Six Evil Geniuses of Essay Writing” - in which, under Number
Six, he captures rather beautifully the way many English professors have taught their students to think and write:
"6. The Knee-Jerk Nihilist
The Knee-Jerk Nihilist is the most sophisticated, most dangerous, and most evil of the Geniuses. He has probably taken an introductory course in literary theory, quantum physics, or postmodernism, but has forgotten most of what he learned. The one thing he took away from these courses, though, was a fundamental conviction that the world around us is just too complicated and too contradictory for us to make any sense of it. He also believes that because all our judgments are clouded by our own prejudices, anyone's opinion is just as good as anyone else's. The Knee-Jerk Nihilist is often seen wearing black and reading Nietzsche. He is also fond of quotation marks.
Question: What makes a political system democratic?
Essay: Democracy is a relative concept. In fact, the concept of "concept" is also relative. Words mean whatever we want them to "mean," and this is especially true for "democracy." For some, it means "free" elections. For others, it means keeping your own thugs "in power" and keeping the enemy thugs "out of power." No one can ever give a coherent definition, because it always depends on the "context." And since the "context" is always shifting, the "concept" of "democracy" also shifts. . . .
The Knee-Jerk Nihilist is smart. He has read a great deal and thought seriously about issues. He has become so disillusioned about the possibility of our arriving at any real understanding of the world, however, that he has mortgaged his powers of analysis for a modish slavery to intellectual skepticism. "
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
“A German theater has been barred from staging Samuel Beckett’s absurdist
masterpiece Waiting for Godot with women in the two key roles, Agence France-Presse reported. The orders came from Beckett’s German publishers.... “This manner of defending the holy grail is a bad joke [said the manager of the German theater where it was to have been performed].” He noted that the publishing house explained that its action was taken out of respect for Beckett’s wishes that women never perform in Waiting for Godot. The Daily Telegraph of London said the director...had cast women in the roles of Lucky and Estragon, leaving males in the roles of Vladimir and Pozzo in a sexually charged interpretation.” New York Times January 21 04
THE GODOT MONOLOGUES
Act II, Scene III
An empty stage. Enter Estrogen and Fucky.
Fucky: [looks about wildly] Where’s my Putzo gone to?
Estrogen: He and Viagramir are comparing penises again.
Fucky: Men are so obsessed. You know, Estrogen, you and I have something interesting too. People think vaginas are nothing, but they’re really something, aren’t they?
Estrogen: Yeah, but people just don’t talk about them. I mean, you know, they make jokes about them like what’s the Martha Washington monument a big hole and that sort of thing but they don’t really talk about them...
Fucky: Yeah, I mean if you want nothing then watch some stupid play by a man who’s displacing his phallic anxiety onto metaphysical bullshit about the emptiness of modern life blah blah blah...
Estrogen: A man who’d specify before he died that women could never perform in his play.
Estrogen: He killed Lucia Joyce too.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
Everything is shit.
"The notions that life here and now is worth living, or that it could be made worth living, or that it must be sacrificed for some future good, are all absent. The dreary world of the Houyhnhnms was about as good a Utopia as Swift could construct, granting that he neither believed in a 'next world' nor could get any pleasure out of certain normal activities. But it is not really set up as something desirable in itself but as the justification for another attack on humanity. The aim, as usual, is to humiliate Man by reminding him that he is weak and ridiculous, and above all that he stinks; and the ultimate motive, probably, is a kind of envy, the envy of the ghost for the living, of the man who knows he cannot be happy for the other who - so he fears - may be a little happier than himself. The political expression of such an outlook must be either reactionary or nihilistic, because the person who holds it will want to prevent society from developing in some direction in which his pessimism may be cheated." Orwell, Politics vs. Literature
I was on a conference panel years ago and had just finished giving my paper. The feminist legal theorist sitting next to me had listened with increasing alarm to my remarks. As the next speaker prepared her notes, the legal theorist leaned into me and whispered: “You do realize, don’t you, that everything is shit?”
In reply, I smiled (it seemed, for the moment, the polite and quiet thing to do), which increased her alarm. “Look.” She pressed closer and scanned my face with scowling incredulity. “Everything... is... shit.”
I’ve already posted here and there on University Diaries on the curious emotional configuration of American humanities professors, and I’d like to explore the matter a bit further today.
Observe this group anywhere - conferences, classrooms, carnivals - and you’ll note a corporate melancholy, a bonding bitterness, an atmospheric agreement that life stinks. The conviction that the world is a surreal nightmare is what Heidegger would call one of the “preconceived objectivities” of the ordinarily objectivity-phobic English professor.
There are political and social reasons for this acrid despair. Politically, many professors are revolutionaries. The spectacle of the insane injustice of American social conditions, and the primitive ideological blindness of ordinary Americans, inspires in these professors a pretty constant level of rage [Update: January 20: Howard Dean's gracious demeanor last night tells you a good deal about why he's the candidate of choice for many such people.]. In the mad world of the mad boy-king George, you can look anywhere and find such blatant policy depravity that you can explain his popularity (plummeting fast, to be sure, for all sorts of good reasons) only by assuming the absolute cretinism of the American public. It’s like the tenacious hold of religious faith in the United States - it’s so palpably stupid for anyone to believe that shit that you’re forced to assume the mental retardation of the entire American landmass.
The social roots of deprimisme in the humanities professoriate include most prominently the overuse of psychotherapy. Many humanities professors in America have for decades been bathing in an ever-refreshed font of resentment, kicking around in stirred-up ashes. The twice weekly reopening of personal wounds sharpens this group’s sense of very particular - even exotic - deprivations.
For instance, at a recent University of Chicago symposium, participants decried America’s lack of gender neutral toilets. Many progressive people so powerfully fail to identify with doors that offer the stark binary opposition MEN/WOMEN that some of them just hold it in, so now you’re seeing a lot of urinary tract infections.
Think how often in the course of a day you see the door to a public restroom. Next
imagine that each time you see this door you are thrown into righteous writhing torment. Now do you understand what I mean when I say that everything is shit?
Friday, January 16, 2004
Professors notoriously try to avoid it. They make funny remarks about it (“Upon retirement,” a longtime humanities faculty member at UCLA once said to me, “every American professor should be issued a rifle and allowed to hunt down and bag one student.”). Many faculty truly madly deeply dislike it, though the dislike dare not speak its name. Others understand that it’s an unpleasantly up and down sort of activity - good days and bad and then good. Fall semester you’re saddled with irredeemably shitty classes. Spring, you’re practically in tears at the spectacle of your students’ charm, knowledge and spiritedness.
Here’s why, after centuries of ambivalence, I like teaching now.
I have pulled my thoughts together (readers of this blog are welcome to disagree). It has taken a long time, but I have cobbled a serviceable view of the world, of literature, and of engagement with people in public spaces. There are certain writers (Malcolm Lowry, Don DeLillo, James Merrill, Donald Justice) about whom I’m passionate, and I have discovered that when my teaching radiates from the core of this passion things go well. I have stopped feeling self-conscious about my intellectual demeanor, which is basically unevolved graduate student - hyper, curious, un p’tit peu ridiculous. As much laughed at as laughed with. I notice that, after years as a serious singer, I make increasing use of my strong voice. I notice too, that with greater confidence I am occasionally theatrical - yesterday, I imitated in front of my Short Story class the way Gregor Samsa’s voice must have sounded as he tried to talk to his family on the morning of his metamorphosis. Last year, I sang a Prokofiev tune that’s featured in DeLillo's Underworld. Most of all, though, I like teaching now because when I finally decided to offer my students seriousness, it turned out that they liked it.
A Fine Mess
There’s a good deal of talk lately about high attrition rates in graduate school in the humanities. It’s sometimes hard to get these numbers, since universities find them
embarrassing, but it looks as though they’re often up over fifty percent, which represents an awful waste of time and money.
One aspect of this discussion that seems strange to me is its focus on the various delusions and obstinacies of the students applying . But they’re not the fuckups; the graduate admissions committees are. In any other organized setting, if at least half of the people you painstakingly invite to share your enterprise wash out, you don’t sit around psychoanalyzing the washed. You change the invitation committee. (Or you change the nature of the enterprise, but that’s another saga.)
These committees are prone to feckless generosity because they are, to begin with,
desperate to demonstrate to deans that their programs are thriving. Some committees routinely accept foreign students if they can pay their own way, even though a non-native speaker will have difficulty in a Ph.D. program which begins with the prose of Jacques Derrida and goes downhill from there. Admissions committees can, more broadly, be politically correct to a suicidal degree. At unimpressive graduate institutions, committees take pretty much all comers, even though people who graduate from grade-inflated, creative-writing-heavy undergraduate programs have not been educated at all, let alone prepared for...for what? Now that the content of the discipline the committee represents has disintegrated, admissions faculty have no idea what might constitute proper preparation for the mad panoply of activities they and their colleagues perform in the classroom.
For what it’s worth, here’s my almost-dropout story. It happened a long time ago, before the discipline collapsed; and it happened at the University of Chicago, a serious place that, at least on the Ph.D. level, had some standards of admission.
I loved the courses, most of the faculty, and most of the fellow students. Loved Chicago and loved the campus atmosphere of easy love affairs and smoky cafes (told you it was a long time ago). But then I began reading current journals and recently published books in the field, and my blood ran cold. I concluded that in order to succeed I would have to become an automaton. I wanted to write like George Orwell, not Bela Lugosi.
So I told a friend in the program (he’s now a rich attorney) that I was going to drop out; and he told a famous, much-respected professor in the program, who hauled me into his office. Why did I want to leave the profession? he asked. What worried me?
I was flattered by this man’s gesture - amazed, actually - and our long talk convinced me to rethink my decision.
I’ve always been insanely happy I stayed in, and thus I've always been very grateful to this man. And I’ve never written like a vampire.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Travails of the Flawed Consumer
I’ve liked this phrase, flawed consumer, ever since I came across it... where? Maybe in a book by Juliet Schor, an economist. Anyway, l’etat, Madame Bovary, and now le flawed consumer... c’est moi. The flawed consumer is that freakish American who fails to follow market commands; i.e., she doesn’t buy enough stuff, and/or she fails to buy stuff at a constant rate. The core cause of my particular flawedness consumptionwise is my failure to buy the one essential consumer object: a television. ‘Tis from there that most of the commands issue; and since I haven’t got one, I’m out of the loop.
Just as in America the failure to promote oneself, as Gary Trudeau once noted, is
considered a sin, so in America the failure to buy things at a level commensurate with, or ideally beyond, your means, is also punishable. I’ve gotten hectoring letters from my bank - “We’ve noticed you’re not using your new gold debit card. Please begin doing so - now!” Today, after I returned home from my regular beginning-of-the-academic year shopping at my local mall, I received my regular beginning-of-the-academic-year phone call from my credit card company: “We’ve detected highly unusual activity on your card! A thief is racing through your local mall using your card before they get caught!” Er - that’s me. I don’t like to shop, you see, and I do it very seldom and very quickly...
The American credit business shrugs at suicidal overspending. It’s only when it detects patterns of restraint that it screams bloody murder.
This semester’s classes have now begun, and silently, in the background, the Syllabum Omnium grows.
Over the years I’ve noticed that, in line with other manifestations of writing in English studies, course syllabi have gone from two page lists of reading assignments to forty page paragraphs of confessions, entreaties, threats, deals, praise, riddles, riffs. Some of these things look more like Math syllabi than English, given how popular the business of breaking grades down into smaller and smaller increments has become (“Students will receive 3.2% for attendance; 15.8% for contribution to discussion...”). Perhaps it’s because many universities now require professors to put copies of all of their syllabi (and assignments; and exams) in their Annual Review packet, but a decision seems to have been made that in lieu of a tenure manuscript a book-length syllabus will do.
To be sure, there have always been a few professors who long ago went cosmic. They decided that in order to teach, say, the nineteenth century novel properly, you need to require students to read twenty such novels (“There’s just so much great stuff!”), plus forty essays about them; and then you wouldn’t be responsible if you didn’t escort the class to the National Gallery to view some Turners; and then, since you can’t really understand the whole deus absconditus thing without reading Nietzsche, you need to add The Will to Power to the
reading list at the last minute. These are the professors you see hasting out of the library with fifteen books falling out of their arms and with a panicked look on their faces: “So many books to read, so little time! I’ll just read this batch tonight.” Cosmic professors have always had humongous syllabi.
But the practice is now general, at least among English professors; and, as always, it’s the students who suffer. Instead of a focused, selective course presentation, students endure a flurry of paper, percentages, and prattle. It’s true what a lot of our colleagues in the hard sciences say: English professors can’t think straight.
Monday, January 12, 2004
But Let’s Not Go Overboard
A little addendum/clarification to my last post:
In a recent book, Growth Fetish, the Australian social critic Clive Hamilton argues that since what some observers are now calling “affluenza” creates large numbers of people subject to “manipulation by marketers, obsessive materialism, endemic alienation, and loneliness,” governments must impose morally improving deprivations upon their populations. In order for too-successful countries like Australia and the United States to get their citizens off “the hedonic treadmill” (a nice phrase coined by Richard Easterlin), Hamilton recommends that governments
1. increase taxation to reduce demand for consumer goods;
2. impose/increase progressive, luxury, speculative, ecological, and inheritance taxes;
3. mandate limitations on working hours;
4. ban most advertising;
5. reduce television broadcast hours;
6. reduce the supply of goods;
7. phase out fossil fuels.
This is madness. Although I agree with Tony Kushner’s recent health reform proposal
(the American government should provide free psychiatric care to anyone who drives a
Hummer), I support wholeheartedly the right of all Americans to buy jackshit and tons of it, watch sixty hours of television a week, work themselves to death, burn fossil fuels, and pleasure themselves with Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues. While I agree with Christopher Lasch that "a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation," I think we need to figure out subtler ways of capping growth than Hamilton seems to have in mind.
Saturday, January 10, 2004
"Luxury is morally repugnant, and its incompatibility with democratic ideals, moreover, has been consistently recognized in the traditions that shape our political culture. The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited. When money talks, everybody else is condemned to listen. For that reason, a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation. Social and civic equality presuppose at least a rough approximation of economic equality." Christopher Lasch
I used to know Benazir Bhutto a little, when she was Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Whenever I met her handsome husband, I was charmed -- he was a bit of a lightweight (most people look lightweight next to Benazir), but he was also amiable, chatty, funny, very human.
Like Benazir, Asif Zardari grew up in unimaginable wealth. “Before I got married, I had my private polo team and led a privileged life,” he says in a recent interview from the prison where he’s lived for the past eight years. “As a child I was spoilt by my parents as an only son. They indulged my every whim and I grew up in luxury.” When he married his country’s ruler, Zardari’s wealth shot up to truly stratospheric heights, and along with being in possession of hundreds of millions of dollars, he was now staggeringly powerful and well-connected.
In his pursuit of yet more money, Zardari behaved with such flagrant corruption during his wife’s tenure that it was easy for the succeeding regime to toss him into the prison which may hold him for the rest of his life. Naturally he and his allies argue that this is a political outcome - his website portrays him as a political martyr to the cause of his wife’s party - but while politics are obviously involved, Zardari’s own perplexing avarice made it possible for what has happened to him to happen.
I say perplexing because I truly do not get it. Why, already controlling hundreds of
millions of dollars (and other forms of currency), would you take a risk - a risk that will turn out to ruin your life and the life of your family - in order to control twenty or so million more?
Since we are taught in modern American culture to medicalize rather than to moralize, let me call the disability that brought this man low money blindness. Like snow blindness, money blindness involves the inability to see things clearly, due to some ambient radiance. Money blindness sufferers cannot perceive money - its value, its meanings, its consequences, its limits, its equitable distribution - because of the glare it gives off.
Many of America’s university presidents and other high-ranking administrators are
beginning to run into legal and ethical difficulties of Zardari’s sort, though of course on a more modest level; and, just as Zardari did damage to the institutions of his country and not just to himself, university presidents are beginning to do truly serious damage to the university as such, because of their particular form of money blindness.
One notable American university president with a long-established case of money blindness is John Silber, who, though no longer its head, is nonetheless running Boston University into the ground (see the Daniel Goldin debacle). Silber’s disciples (including my university’s president -- see below) include the notorious John Diamandopoulos, a character blessed, eighteenth-century style, with a perfectly fitting parodic last name. Once president of Adelphi University, Diamandopoulos ran into trouble, the Boston Globe reports, when a student group called the Committee to Save Adelphi
complained that Diamandopoulos's compensation - $523,636 in salary and bonuses in 1994 - was excessive. Silber was the only university president being paid more at the time. ...Diamandopoulos became best known for his perks at Adelphi. By 1996, he was earning $837,000 a year in pay and benefits. He had reportedly received $360,000 in travel expenses for annual trips with his wife to Greece, a Mercedes-Benz, and a Manhattan condominium worth $1.3 million - with an option to buy it for $905,000. According to The New York Times, when the crisis led to a meeting of the board of trustees, Diamandopoulos allegedly began taking out trustees and billed Adelphi $546 for a dinner with Silber....Three weeks ago, Diamandopoulos and the trustees were forced to pay a settlement worth about $4.3 million to the university - including $1.45 million from an insurance claim. Diamandopoulos was ordered to return almost $650,000 cash and $90,000 rent for his apartment, and he and his fellow trustees were ordered to repay $225,000. The other trustees independently were ordered to return $800,000, Ahearn said; a breakdown of their individual expenses was not available.
Diamandopoulos was also ordered to relinquish his rights to deferred compensation, a sabbatical, and the Manhattan apartment - perks worth $765,019. The trustees, including Silber, resigned in February 1997, and the new board replaced Diamandopoulos.
But those were the old days; today, Diamandopoulos’s compensation would earn him the pity of a number of university presidents.
The Globe recently reported that “Four university presidents earned more than $800,000 in salary and benefits during the 2002 fiscal year and three grossed more than $1 million including compensation from serving on other boards. The presidents of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Vanderbilt University, University of Pennsylvania and Rockefeller University were ranked as the four most highly paid university presidents according to statistics published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. ...Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., received the highest compensation of any university president in the 2002 fiscal year for a total annual university compensation of $891,400. In addition to this compensation which includes $490,000 in salary and $401,400 in non-cash performance-based compensation accrued over three years, Jackson also receives $39,915 for expenses including housing and car allowances and as much as $591,000 in annual pay for membership on various corporate boards. Added together, Jackson received $1,120,915 in salary plus her non-cash performance-based incentives in the 2002 fiscal year.”
To get a sense of the humiliation undercompensated university presidents now endure, consider Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz, who was, notes the Globe, “ranked 36th on a list of 42 research university presidents, ... receiving $340,632 during the 2001-2002 fiscal year, a two percent salary increase from the 2000-2001 fiscal year. Additionally, Reinharz received $32,962 in fringe benefits such as health insurance, and $231,985 in allowances for housing, car, fitness, tuition for dependent children and a non-cash supplemental retirement benefit that is earned only after contract completion in 2009. When added together, during the 2002 fiscal year Reinharz received a total of $373,605 in cash and benefits.”
“In a time of ... rising tuition costs,” this article continues, “some question the extravagance of these salaries. Again according to the Chronicle, the average tuition percentage increase for first-tier ranked schools was 4.8 percent during the 2002-2003 fiscal year. Meanwhile, the median compensation for a president of a private doctoral research university rose by approximately eight percent in the 2001 to 2002 fiscal year.”
Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher
Education, is quoted in this article saying,"It's pretty hard to convince people that we're concerned about the rising costs of colleges, and yet we're paying these salaries." No shit, Sherlock.
The situation gets more interesting in the case of public universities. These are under
various legislative constraints in showering their leaders with gold (indeed a number of
state legislatures have capped university president salaries lately - some presidents, for instance, can’t make more than the governor of their state), but more and more public universities are getting around this problem by having private groups and donors cough up large supplemental funds. Can we, all by ourselves, figure out who these donors overwhelmingly turn out to be?
Once you decide that the university is a corporation like any other, subject to exactly the same market laws, you can’t do anything about this. Only if you think the university is in some significant ways different from a corporation can you begin to argue against the perfectly crass, perfectly recognizable, perfectly accepted market mentality at work here. Only if you think that part of the distinctive leadership of an intellectual institution should involve the embodiment of extra-market values can you even begin to take this one on.
Thursday, January 08, 2004
“University life was much more humane then that it has now become. Less doctrinaire, less ‘correct,’ more open-minded. Fewer intellectual fascists about.” Donald Justice
To understand how humane studies became inhumane in our time, begin by considering important aspects of the larger culture they've embraced. The humanities could, as I suggest in the post just below, have tried to get in touch with a bit of their inner monasticism (something like this was the model of the university for centuries), and this would have been a good idea. They could at the very least have attempted to maintain a certain quiet distance from the blare and glut of contemporary America. But instead they went the other way -- all the way out to the world beyond the college walls.
And what’s it like out there? Well, often strikingly inhumane -- not merely in the sense of cruel, but in the sense of robotic, barely recognizable as human. In an end-of-year feature last December, the New York Times asked a few writers to discuss some of the worst ideas and practices that have come to dominate American culture. Three responses were especially telling:
1.) We humiliate other people through unconscionable greed and status obsession (“When executives insist on making thousands of times more money than workers in order to feel rewarded, the peculiar American social contract is undermined. Both domestically and internationally, we're collectively trending toward mass humiliation of opponents.”).
[UPDATE: 25 Jan 04: In today's New York Times, Market Watch's columnist Gretchen Morgenson talks about various recent proposals to limit chief executive pay:
"The gap between chiefs' pay and that of lower-level workers has yawned in recent years. J.P. Morgan, the financier, is credited with suggesting that executives earn no more than 20 times the pay of low-level workers. How quaint: a 2000 study by Towers Perrin showed that chiefs at big domestic companies earned 531 times what their hourly employees did, on average."]
2.) We are soulless workaholics (“Studies reveal that Americans do an average of
350 hours [the equivalent of almost nine 40-hour weeks] more work each year than
Europeans, and two-thirds fail to sleep eight hours a night. Stress-induced illnesses are rampant. Even when we're not working, we "work out" or watch reality TV. We have turned our homework- and activity-burdened older children and ourselves into
workaholics, multitasking 24/7. What are we trying to prove?”).
Workaholism update 1.12.04: “According to the latest figures from the Federal Reserve, America's consumer debt has topped $2 trillion for the first time, continuing what debt experts view as an alarming surge in recent years,” reports today’s Washington Post. One observer notes that in the long term this means “our standard of living has to go down." Another remarks: "It's going to result in people having to work longer. Effectively, if this continues, the average American will not have enough to retire on and will not be able to retire."
3.) We are pathetically dependent upon mercenary experts to live our lives and define our experience for us (“These days you would think that there is no such thing as normal, thanks to the hand-in-glove working of the drug and insurance companies with the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the handbook of 374 ‘mental illnesses.’ If you are still grieving a loved one's death two months later, you fit the category of "major depressive disorder." Insurance companies want you quickly fixed, drug companies have a pill for every occasion, and friends and family are too overworked to provide the irreplaceable support for grief that is present in other countries. We are damaging the nature of friendship, teaching people that they need experts to treat them for everything.”)
The American university has always had the choice to capitulate to or to resist these trends. Our best novelists, after all, critique them: read Don DeLillo’s White Noise. But the English faculty of our liberal arts institutions by and large mirrors these trends - like the APA, many professors impose shabbily inadequate narratives upon richly textured human experience; like many other Americans, they are often technology-mad work robots; and, as for number one on the list: some of the highest profile academics in the humanities today tend to model precisely the reptilian winner-take-all approach to social life the writer is describing.
Reclaiming a humane academy involves among other things an attentiveness to our own complex emotions - not the kitsch of psychotherapy and tv, not the umbrage of the university sex police, not the emotionlessness that Richard Rorty, having in mind cultural theorists, calls "dry knowingness," but rather the actual forms of feeling we undergo in the world and at the university.
The mature deployment of emotion is, as writers since Aristotle have known, one of our only ways of apprehending and assimilating significant and sometimes traumatic private and public experience. “Feel, feel, I say,” wrote Henry James in 1915 to a friend whose husband had just left for the war front: “Feel for all you’re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live, especially to live at this terrible pressure.” The cathartic release of emotion that aesthetic experience prompts (violence prompts the cathartic release of emotion too, of course, and from Columbine on down this is the preferred American way) remains just as urgent in our current pressurized circumstances, and yet the very people who should be leading us to it - teachers of the humanities - represent, as Andrew Delbanco notes in my last entry, an oddly affectless vanguard.
“Many people who become academics,” writes James Elkins, author of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, “fail to feel anything very strongly... Virtually all academics are in the tearless camp.” Based on his surveys of art historians and other academics in the humanities, Elkins remarks that “the majority of such people...actually distrust strong emotions,” which are seen as “old-fashioned, romantic, and unfitted to modern art.” Crying in front of paintings is “unprofessional.” Underlying this emotion-phobia, Karl Mannheim suggested decades ago, is “the great historical process of disillusionment, in which every concrete meaning of things as well as myths and beliefs are slowly cast aside.” (Again, something like this is what Delbanco has in mind below when he talks about humanities professors and their loss of faith.) Intense aesthetic emotion is simply one of the casualties of a larger “destruction of all spiritual elements, the utopian as well as the ideological” in modern life, a condition Mannheim calls “matter of factness.” Mannheim regards the ascendancy of matter of factness as a catastrophe, “the decay of the human will” to comprehend and improve the world.
Richard Rorty, who essentially repeats Mannheim’s argument about matter of factness in our time, attacks excessive theorizing among American humanities professors which, again, substitutes a cold “knowingness” for awe, and “resentment over the failures of the past for visions of a better future.” The result, he says, is not intellectuals who are a little smarter, but rather intellectuals who are “a little meaner.”
[Along these lines, Timothy Burke tells a wonderfully toxic little tale about an exchange he once had with a fellow faculty member at Swarthmore:
“I had a chance a few years ago to attend a dinner for a guest lecturer. Some of
my favorite colleagues from Swarthmore were there. The conversation started with
issues that were fairly specific to the speaker’s presentation and work, but very
rapidly grew into a fast-paced bull session aimed at the primal question, “What is a
good society”? Afterwards, I talked with one of my colleagues who hadn’t been
there about how this had been the best discussion I’d had since I was an
undergraduate, and my feeling of melancholy about how rare and odd this
conversation actually was. My colleague looked puzzled and said, ‘Sounds awfully
The aesthetic enthusiasm which post-structuralist critics like Fredric Jameson ridicule as grounded in “quaint romantic values” is in fact our only means, Rorty argues, toward infusing ourselves with what he calls “social hope,” the conviction - which we feel in the presence of powerful aesthetic objects - that, despite all, the world remains comprehensible, workable, and transformable toward something better by our efforts. Yet transformative hopefulness of any kind continues to be, in the words of the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, “plowed under by the irony machine” of postmodern thought.
Aesthetic experience discloses a world made radiant and vital by a mostly unseen but
occasionally glimpsed sublime coherence - unattached to any divinity or creed - underlying the seeming contingency of the world. “I am sure that far from feeling myself degraded by my intercourse with art,” William James tells his skeptical father, “I continually receive from it spiritual impressions the intensest and purest I know.” In Victor Segalen’s Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity, he describes the heart of aesthetic pleasure as involving a vision of “the diversity of forms and of things [as they] rise from some unfathomable abyss of unity.”
Though the source and nature of this unity remains enigmatic, its effect on the observer involves the sudden conviction that there is more to the world than we have ever sensed before; that beneath the flux and immanence of daily experience, the world is animated by a steady source of meaning and value. The observed beautiful thing is the emblem of that somehow reassuring submerged coherence in its unanswerable reality, its stupendous presentness. Standing in the bedroom where his lover has just died, gazing at his face, Mark Doty writes of the beauty of the moment: “All things which are absolutely authentic are beautiful. Is there a luminous threshold where the self becomes irreducible, stripped to the point where all that’s left to see is pure soul, the essence of character? Here, in unfailing self-ness, is not room or energy for anything inessential, for anything less than what counts.”
This process of adaptation to a broken world involves both direct confrontation with the morbid and horrifying force of the instigating event, and, just as importantly, reassurance that individual and communal abilities to overcome injury and reorder the world remain intact. Iris Murdoch admired T.E. Lawrence, she said, because he had the ability to “let the agonizing complexities of situations twist [his] heart instead of tying [his] hands -- that is real human greatness.” In an essay titled “Mahler Was There Ahead of Us - How Art Helps Us Face the Unfathomable,” Joshua Kosman writes that artists “take our ragged, inchoate emotions and reflect them back in more coherent form. [T]hey help us replace raw terror with a sense of awe.”
“When we say a thing is unreal,” wrote DeLillo of the World Trade Tower
attacks, ‘we mean it is too real, a phenomenon so unaccountable and yet so bound to the power of objective fact that we can’t tilt it to the slant of our perceptions. First the planes struck the towers. After a time it became possible for us to absorb this, barely. But when the towers fell. When the rolling smoke began moving downward floor to floor. This was so vast and terrible that it was outside imagining even as it happened. We could not catch up with it. But it was real, punishingly so...”
Yet if it is incomprehensible, it is not, DeLillo suggests, omnipotent. Although the
terrorists have temporarily seized the “narrative” of the world, “it is left to us to create the counternarrative” by letting the event twist our hearts rather than tie our hands. “We need,” he writes, “the “smaller objects and more marginal stories in the sifted ruins of the day. We need them, even the common tools of the terrorists, to set against the massive spectacle that continues to seem unmanageable, too powerful a thing to set into our frame of practised response.”
“The writer begins in the towers,” he continues, “trying to imagine the moment,
desperately. Before politics, before history, and religion, there is the primal terror. People falling from the towers hand in hand. This is part of the counternarrative, hands and spirits joining, human beauty in the crush of meshed steel. ...The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.” In Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, Adorno wrote that in the wake of World War II and the concentration camps, “there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better.”
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Purity and Worldiness|
Here’s a sentence from Frank Kermode: “The humanities are corrupted in the academy, the institution intended to do society’s purest and most serious thinking for it.”
Every person who’s been through a Ph.D. program in English at any point during the last two decades has been primed to respond to Kermode’s sentence in the following way: “What do you mean, ‘pure’? Sounds fascistic to me. And ‘corrupted’ in terms of what Eurocentric standard? ‘Intended’? Don’t you need to consider who’s doing the ‘intending’ here? The absence of any radical interrogation of the positionality of the speaker of such a sentence...”
Allow me, however, to tiptoe away from this inquisitor and get back to business.
Today in the academy, worldliness, not the purity Kermode has in mind, is all. There is a word for reflective twenty-first century people who successfully resist worldliness, and that word is monks. If you want to see a true commitment to purity and seriousness of thought, go to Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia and watch white-robed benedictines in their silent ora and labora, their lectio divina, their gregorian cantus.
[Yes, I know that worldly people can only picture monks as gnomes guzzling bourbon while they stir the monastery’s fudge. This sort of perceptual limitation is the reason we call worldly people worldly.]
But do not go to the American university or college in search of unworldly - or even ambivalently worldly - contemplatives. Some university presidents exemplify the unapologetic acquisitiveness and the simulacral mode of being of the worldly citizen of twenty-first century America.
Intellectuals embody a kind of mental mediation between these two extremes of worldliness and purity - in this world but not fully of it, they bring an honest critical consciousness to bear on the benighted things and personalities of contemporary existence. They share with monks a disgust with the greed ("The University News has obtained the list of [University of Missouri] administration raises that provoked the expulsion of a Kansas City Star reporter from a faculty senate meeting last month and triggered outrage among many faculty members," reports a college news service on a story that began to emerge at the end of last year. "The list revealed that during the last two years administrators have given themselves raises of up to 110 percent while virtually freezing the salaries of those who teach classes..."), the arrogance, and the ugliness of the profane world.
“The intellectual,” writes Theodor Adorno, “particularly when
philosophically inclined, is cut off from practical life: revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind.” But this withdrawal also drives the intellectual’s critical power: “Only someone who keeps himself in some measure pure,” Adorno continues, “has hatred, nerves, freedom and mobility enough to oppose the world...”
In theory, the university and in particular its humanities division should be just the place for the properly ambivalent, semi-withdrawn intellectual to struggle with this problem and possibly generate serious thought that opposes what we ought to oppose (and celebrates what we ought to celebrate) in the world. This, again, is what Kermode has in mind. But most American universities have no place for, have no idea of, have no pre-existing models of, the quasi-worldly contemplative truly serious about intellectual honesty and moral scrupulousness. For them, the odd cropping up of such a person in their midst -- the sudden appearance of, say, Iris Murdoch or Simone Weil -- would be an embarrassment, an intolerably nonstandard deviation from the norm.
To be sure, every American college or university campus today is expected to have somewhere on the faculty its very own Professor Peculiar - usually a Jew with funny hair like Harold Bloom or Albert Einstein. But this is in the way of a mascot.
Truly serious contemplatives on campus get smacked right and left - on one side, the consultant-professoriate disdains their messy dressing habits and relative indifference to status and salary; on the other side, the cultural theorists revile their relative withdrawal from political activism and their efforts to retain a certain innocence (an innocence the cultural theorists dismiss as faux-naivete) in a degraded world.
Meanwhile, though, as Andrew Delbanco suggests, benighted contemporary English professors themselves begin to look like a religious sect, albeit a dwindling one: “English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase—a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions. ...The sad news is that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and in themselves.”
The even sadder news is that although students continue to come to the university with the “human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one's own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself,” writes Delbanco, this craving now, more often than not, goes unfulfilled, because the teachers of these students have lost faith.
Sunday, January 04, 2004
The Book Imperative
Contemporary American humanities professors, many of whom have never met a moral imperative they like, tend to be belligerent fundamentalists about one thing. They display a blind faith in the transubstantiating power of the tenure monograph. It and it alone can change Assistant to Associate.
Under the influence of the book-imperative, the gentle agnosticism of the typical tenured professor of English can, especially at tenure review meetings, become virulent loyalty to the authority of university presses. Brandishing the Pentagon-speak they would revile in any other context, faculty members will announce: "All of our candidates must score a book -- and demonstrate second strike capability!" Even greater publication pressures are coming, Lindsay Waters writes, from "chief academic administrators [who] have begun to demand that candidates for tenure publish two books, not just one, because more is somehow better; they actually don't give a damn which presses churn out all these unreadable, uninspiring volumes. It's my contention that the tyranny of the tenure monograph has contributed to a crisis in the humanities."
Stephen Greenblatt and Lindsay Waters have recently counterattacked the book imperative forces, Greenblatt for superficial, and Waters for profound, reasons. MLA President Greenblatt's much-discussed letter to tenure committees suggesting that senior faculty now retreat from the rigid insistence on a book or two is a desperate move, a Hail Mary pass in the face of a collapsing scholarly book market (for various reasons, publishing companies lately are producing far fewer monographs than they used to). If our junior colleagues can't find presses willing to publish the books imperative for tenure, he argues, our tenure committees must - at least until the market recovers - make the book imperative unimperative. To keep winning the game, we're going to have to suspend the rules.
Greenblatt adds that the profession will eventually need to "collectively ponder and debate" the articles of faith underlying this awkward outcome; but first we'll have to fix "the immediate problem."
Yet if the MLA had pondered and debated earlier, we might have avoided the embarrassment. All tenured professors of literature have seen evidence of the corruptions, distortions, and absurdities of the book imperative system, pre- and post-tenure. When in a recent review of Judith Butler's work, Martha Nussbaum called one of Butler's books "unconscionably bad," she was telling us, among other things, that the book imperative had destroyed Butler's sense of the moral imperative not to publish for the sake of publishing.
We know that the situation is scandalous up and down the line, but we have been unwilling, each of us, to examine our own bookolatry. And because we've continued to pass the book, we now see that the situation is not merely scandalous but suicidal. The book has begun eating its children.
While Greenblatt looks for ways to protect professors from market vagaries, Waters, an influential editor of scholarly books, begs tenured professors to reflect upon their cheapening and self-defeating tenure monograph mania. Can they not begin to perceive, he asks, how the cynical overproduction of feeble, unvisited tomes, the sorts of tomes Edward Casaubon would have produced if he'd been under tenure pressure, undermines all books? Can they not grasp how, in the pointlessly turbulent world of the book imperative, a rising tide sinks all ships?
Waters clearly hopes that the profession will strike out in a new direction, and the direction he has in mind is toward the essay, that much-maligned minor god in the tenure publication pantheon. If a book is the heavy artillery, an essay is the light brigade, the infantry division in a not-yet-battle-ready force. Essays are attendant lords; they will do to swell a scene or two in the early pages of an academic career, but they are little skirmishes, small incursions, notable at best as rumors of all-out war. The broader battle will be fought chapter-to-chapter, in the two-hundred and fifty pages deemed necessary to mount a thorough tenure campaign.
And yet is it not the case, Waters writes, that "to make a group of scholars turn on a dime, we need a publication not as thick as a brick, but as thin as a dime"? Economists, scientists, and political scientists have long known this, and their tenure standards focus upon essays as much as, if not more than, books. Waters describes an economist asking him "why the people in many of the disciplines in which I publish want to waste so much of the time of young people in the prime of their lives with such a lot of make-work. In economics, he said, they want to keep the kids working hard to generate new ideas that the rest of the profession can feed off of, because youth is the leading edge." The economist, Waters concludes, is right: "Why should we encourage young humanists to do a lot of Mickey Mouse work, to go through the motions, when what they should be trying to write are moving essays... .?"
Such essays could certainly work their ways into - or more probably, unfortunately, puff themselves out into - future books; but it is the discipline of generating intriguing and concisely expressed ideas that we want to encourage in younger humanities scholars. We should want evidence of lively engaged minds at pretty constant work rather than anxious squirrely minds holding their manuscript pages close to their belt while waiting for a press to publish them.
There is, writes R. Stephen Humphreys, "ungodly pressure on younger faculty and faculty-in-waiting to publish full-length monographs as early as possible. Sometimes their material is only substantial enough to support an article or two, but their professional lives depend on expanding it to the requisite 220 pages that will make a real book. Hence too many books with too little to say. Their research will be very extensive, but is also likely to be hasty and careless." "Junior faculty scramble to get dissertations published before their time," writes Mark Bauerlein, "and the market is saturated with scholarly ephemera." If we wanted ideas and polemic, we'd want essays and occasional, probably later career, books; we're drowning in books because we want tools of certification.
Yet there are deeper reasons for our enormous resistance to the essay as the dominant standard for early and even mid-career intellectual work in the humanities, and our veneration of the book; and these have to do, I would argue, with morbidity and concealment. After all, why should five well-placed and thoughtful essays, one of them, let us say, generating a good bit of citation and response, be regarded as a pathetic tenure-effort, and a dead-on-arrival book be celebrated? Something in us prefers the dead to the living. For with few exceptions, the tenure monograph in the humanities is that dead thing that lies on the conference table as we talk cluelessly about it (no one has read a page), vainly attempting to excite one another and ourselves toward a belief in its life; while the essay, especially if it appears in good intellectual quarterlies and scholarly journals, is likely to be a closely argued, accessible, and lively piece of work.
If it's particularly good, the essay will generate responses in the pages of the journal; it may have another life in a collection of essays on its subject by a variety of writers; or it may, again, eventually expand its argument into a book. An early career essay is far more likely to have a life span than an early career book. And an essay makes it harder than a book does to hide or obscure your ideas and arguments; it's difficult, in an essay, to bury what you really think under layers of literature-review, guru-worship, plot summary, and footnotes -- there's no time for that. Essays get to the point quickly and hold the point. As Timothy Burke, an historian, writes, "A journal article needs to get in and get out quickly and with intensity. Some kinds of works are peculiarly well-suited to journals: debates between several authors, commentaries, research notes, articles about material which doesn't properly fit into a larger monograph, and so on. Editors need to be more aggressive about making the journal form a distinctive kind of academic writing."
Tenure committees, moreover, are far more likely to be willing to read a couple of significant essays than to read a lengthy unimportant book. Promotion meetings based upon everyone having read one significant essay by a candidate might well turn into serious discussion of the quality of that person's ideas.
And finally, as an ad hoc MLA committee responding to the crisis recently noted, "If peer review is assumed to be the ideal gateway to scholarly communication, we need to consider whether journal publication - arguably determined more directly [than monograph publication] by peer readers - may not only be better in many instances for individuals but also better for the collective advancement of knowledge." John Lyons, the editor of Academe, is less diplomatic: "I've been opposed for a long time to the equation that publication equals scholarship and scholarship equals publication," he remarks in a recent interview. "I understand that a press has to make a commercial decision. But why should the scholarly world turn over control of its personnel to the marketing department of a press?... The presses are caught between the market forces and this absolutely insane inflation of the demand to publish books as a requirement for tenure, which I think is complete hogwash when it comes to the issue of determining scholarly quality." "Judgment has been externalized," Bauerlein concludes, "handed over to university editorial boards."
The increasingly destructive meaninglessness of the tenure manuscript, in short, has made it the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor of the American university literature department. It has turned the profession's president into a sorcerer's apprentice, trying vainly to control the choking effects of its grotesque self-replication; it has turned many promising young thinkers into drones; it has allowed literature departments to dodge the responsibility of taking seriously the intellectual merit of their junior faculty members; and, in its simulacral splendor, the tenure manuscript has done its own small bit to deepen our general sense of living in a virtual, rather than a real world. "When I was growing up out in the sticks of Illinois," Waters remarks, "the university seemed to me to be a shining city on a hill, a place where people actually got paid to read widely, and to have fun with ideas. If it's ceased to be such a place, it's partly because people my age - I was born in 1947 - aren't encouraging younger thinkers to be more daring."
Despite market and other pressures, however, today's promotion committees maintain a fierce grip on the tenure manuscript. They seem to have taken a page out of NRA President Charleton Heston's book: You'll get their tenure manuscripts when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers.
Beyond the reasons I've so far suggested for this icy grip, and for the equally firm resistance to the essay as primary evidence of tenurability, lie two related phobias: fear of conflict, and fear of value distinctions. If the tenure decision can neatly resolve itself into the absence or presence of a book on a table, none of the messy disputatious business of hammering out a sense of a person's true intellectual ability need take place; and if the only value invoked in the tenure transaction is quantitative, then the awful, disheartening forms that scholarly conversation tends to take in politically correct times can likewise be avoided.
A canned book, in other words, is better than a can of worms. If we could discuss good and bad ideas, literate and less literate styles of writing, or the relative worth of paying attention to some writers over others, without having to spend a lot of time swatting down charges of elitism, we would do so, I suppose; but because many of us have witnessed or been drawn into the bullying theatrics of contemporary academic discourse, we would just as soon forego the degradation. Too much institutional connerie has made cowards of us all.
Nonetheless, the current crisis in the tenure game does represent an opportunity for us to follow Waters's lead and get serious about the matter. Start by asking yourself what intellectual work has had a real impact upon you. In my own case, the most inspiring and useful source of knowledge about art I've encountered in years was an essay on the meaning of modernism by Michael Fried, and then an essay in response to Fried's by T.J.Clark, and then a very nasty exchange between the two of them, all in the pages of one issue of Critical Inquiry about twenty years ago. I've reread it countless times, and I'm always thrilled and enlightened by the emotional and intellectual intensity of their clash.
A number of other such essays easily come to mind. And yet the "career trajectories" of intellectuals like "Rene Girard, M. H. Abrams, Paul de Man, and Meyer Shapiro are eschewed," Bauerlein points out, "for none of those talents produced enough work early in their professional lives to merit tenure under the present system." Of course books - mature books by seasoned scholars - have been crucial to me. But if I ask myself what's fired me up and sustained me in my thinking over many years, the answer is the sharp, well-written, well-reasoned, polemical essay that astonishes me with a new sensibility and a new point of view. Many of these essays have been anthologized, expanded into books, or incorporated into various edited volumes. Yet when I encounter them in these more refined settings, I'm nostalgic for the rough immediacy, the unbound cerebral energy, of their original environment. They lived; and they live. They represent a sort of ideal to which our junior faculty should aspire.
Let the dissertation go back to being what it was always intended to be: an extended work of scholarship demonstrating to a Ph.D. granting institution one's Ph.D.- worthiness. Having written it, younger scholars should transform parts of it into excellent published or publishable essays that can be shown to hiring committees when job candidates go after their first academic appointment (keep in mind that, contrary to popular belief, studies suggest that hiring committees are not in fact looking for publications at this stage). These essays would represent a distillation of what's best in the dissertation; they would give hiring committees an easily accessible way of determining the intellectual strength and potential of the candidate; and they would push the younger scholar away from the deadly, hyperspecialized model of the tenure monograph for future written work, and toward the lively, interdisciplinary model of the essay.
"I've lived to become that appetizing thing, a 'full professor,'" Vladimir Nabokov commented in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1964, "but at heart I have always remained a lean 'visiting professor.'" Everything about institutional mobility in the humanities in the last few decades has involved, as even the MLA is now beginning to acknowledge, a sort of stupid inflation, a mindless bulking up to an appetizing but unhealthy fullness. Robert Darnton describes what he calls "monographism" as a "disease. It seems to be killing disciplines like literary criticism, where voguishness and arcane jargon have alienated the ordinary educated reader." A book, an academic wit once said, is "an article on steroids," and indeed our profession's action heroes remain the Schwarzeneggers of overproduction, the Stakhanovites of verbosity who started sweating out articles on steroids in their first years as professors and now cannot stop. Must we make these lumbering gladiators our model for junior faculty? A much more attractive model would be the lean, outward-tending, flexible, clear-thinking, public-minded essayist, who puts herself out there and enjoys the give and take of debate in the pages of lively journals. At heart we should remain, as Nabokov did, lean visiting professors, truly open to the world of ideas.
Must We Be Milquetoasts?
Must We Be Toast?
Here’s something Kingman Brewster, a former president of Yale, said many decades ago:
“Faculty members, once they have proved their potential during a period of junior probation, should not feel beholden to anyone, especially Department Chairmen, Deans, Provosts, or Presidents, for favor, let alone for survival. In David Riesman’s phrase, teachers and scholars should, insofar as possible, be truly ‘inner directed’ - guided by their own intellectual curiosity, insight, and conscience. In the development of their ideas they should not be looking over their shoulders either in hope of favor or in fear of disfavor from anyone other than the judgment of an informed and critical posterity.”
People talk about various dire effects of the corporatization of the American university, but they rarely look at one in particular, crucial though it is. The corporate ethos of constant anxiety about performance (have you generated enough business? have you been responsive to customers?), constant thought about how you look to the boss, how you look relative to other go-getters, what rewards and punishments you’re eligible to be getting, has now infested the university. Ever more legalistic and frequent annual review, post-tenure review, teaching evaluation, performance evaluation via interview with the department chair, and so forth, has meant the inescapable intrusion of The Dean’s World into the world of ideas.
Professors who used to embody the autonomy, the risk-taking, the focus upon ideas for their own sake, that Brewster is articulating are now largely obsolete, and in their place, what one professor posting to an academic website recently called “middle management” (he used the term in a positive sense, to identify himself) has come to the fore. Just as humanities professors have become a “herd of displaced social workers,” in Harold Bloom’s words, by thinking of their students not as adventurous intellects in search of lucidity but as fragile souls to be made happy, so these same humanities professors think of themselves as mendicants meaning to be made happy by the corporate powers that control their salary, benefits, equipment, grants, course load, and sabbaticals.
In particular, more and more humanities professors, disenchanted with the spiritless, grade-inflated, anti-intellectual classroom, and eager to buy the status
items that will assuage their feelings of inferiority relative to better-paid white-collar professionals, relentlessly seek fewer courses and more money; they become corporate players rather than intellectuals or teachers. And the saddest part of this process is that the very argument and attitude of the Foucauldian cultural theory they embrace, what Richard Rorty calls its posture of “dry knowingness,” is one and the same with the corporate attitude of arid savvy, of passionless competitiveness for its own sake, of crass worldliness.
This, then, is the peculiar nature of academic cowardice: Having striven to enter a world modeled not on the values of the market but on the values of generosity, curiosity, lucidity, passion, experimentation, and the sort of moral and intellectual freedom you can enjoy only when material and self-serving considerations are to a large extent put aside, humanities professors now turn against that world and regard it as a naive delusion. Rather than asking themselves why that world dissolved, what moral compromises and intellectual conformities of their own contributed to its dissolution, professors assume the inevitability of the dissolution and simply muck about in what’s left over from the flood.
As leading academics in the humanities like Terry Eagleton begin to perceive what English departments have lost to the bizarre alliance of hebephrenic professionalism and dead on arrival theorizing, they begin, as he has lately done, to say good riddance to all that. They attempt to resuscitate humane thought.
It will be difficult. It will be a personal, institutional, and intellectual battle. It will call for courage.
Saturday, January 03, 2004
Must We Be Milquetoasts?
Must We Be Toast?
After American soldiers captured Saddam Hussein, the shouts of excitement from Iraqis gathered to hear the announcement said it all.
The soldiers who went down into the spider hole (whatever the hell that is) were brave.
Are you with me so far? Can we agree that a baseline definition of bravery would include the men and women who did this thing?
Okay. So we have a baseline definition of bravery - willingness to go after and capture Saddam Hussein. Or - let's say - the Israelis who went and brought Adolf Eichmann to Israel; or the Israelis who went to Entebbe. Are we still on the same page? These are clear examples of bravery. Others would include New York City firemen on 9/11 - that one's bravery plus transcendent altruism.
On the morning of 9/11, when I found out about it online, I went down the street to my mother's house to watch television (remember - we don't have a tv in our house -- see entry below for details). I watched it all, and then I went down to her basement and lay on the cold floor. Just lay there, thinking. Thinking: "Nothing to do but be brave. Nothing to do but be brave."
It's probably true to say of me that for most of my adult life I've worried about whether I can be a brave person when called upon to be so. My life from the start has been pleasant, privileged, protected. The bad stuff that's happened has been purely personal, and I can't stand the bullshit about "psychological" bravery you have to listen to in the US - "I'm brave because I'm a survivor of molestation by my cousin..." So I don't have any bravery to point to in my life so far (and I'm pretty far advanced in years) and therefore don't know whether I have what it takes to be brave.
Let us now move from the undisputed territory of real-world bravery to the ivory tower, shall we? Many writers seem to agree that far from showing even mild intellectual, institutional, or interpersonal guts, American university professors - particularly in the humanities, natch - are abject cowards on every conceivable level. Indeed so fetishized has cowardice become in the academy that I think you'll be able to see, in some of the comments below, evidence of an escalating Personal Cowardice Confession war among professors.
Here are a few sample comments about academics:
Camille Paglia on the MLA conference: “In the conferences, a host of Bartleby the scriveners tippy-toe thorugh showy verbal pirouettes and imagine they’re running with the bulls at Pamplona.”
Camille Paglia again: “Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault are the perfect prophets for the weak, anxious academic personality, trapped in verbal formulas and perennially defeated by circumstance. They offer a self-exculpating cosmic explanation for the normal
professorial state of resentment, alienation, dithery passivity, and inaction.”
“It’s a purebred English crowd, just as Swenson feared. The tepid predictability, the lack of interest or buzz.” [from the novel Blue Angel]
“That was in the days when you still taught. Now you spread futility, Ben. It creeps in, like your dirty socks do, into my drawers...”
[from the play Butley]
“Morris Zapp had no great esteem for his fellow-labourers in the vineyards of literature. They seemed to him vague, fickle, irresponsible creatures, who wallowed in relativism like hippopotami in mud, with their nostrils barely protruding into the air of common-sense.” [from the novel Changing Places]
“All right. I cannot... (Pause) I cannot help but feel you are owed an apology. (Pause) (Of papers in his hands) I have read. (Pause) And reread these accusations...” [from the play Oleanna] Okay, this one's a bit obscure: read David Mamet's play.
Gillian Rose describes a "routinely tedious faculty meeting [during which] I was aware of an intense aura emanating from someone whom I had never seen before, an intense sexual aura, aimed precisely and accurately at my vacant being. ‘A man,’ I wondered, ‘could there be a man in this meeting?’”
"I do get a chance every once in a while to talk with colleagues about their work," writes Timothy Burke in his wonderful blog, Easily Distracted , "but usually because of accidents or strange interruptions of routine. It is not because we are too busy. It is because we are afraid. For one, we are afraid because of having tenure, not because we have yet to have it: all of us with tenure fear starting a conversation that will reveal an irresolvable intellectual and political divide between ourselves and a colleague. [...]
Who wants to live for 30 years with someone who hates you and will work to undermine you, especially knowing as most of us do that an academic environment offers innumerable opportunities for a “dour machiavel” to damage colleagues in ways that cannot be confronted or stopped? I was speaking the other day with a colleague from another institution that I like a lot and I confessed (that's the right word for it) that I really liked Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism. He looked surprised, "But it's quite a neocon book, isn't it"? I suppose, I said, but on a few things, I think the neocons have a point.. That earned me a quick look of concerned surprise, much as if I had said I had cancer or AIDS. For most academics, better to keep silent and tend one’s own gardens in the very public privacy of one’s own specialization. We are afraid of our own intellectual ambitions, afraid that other academics will think us simple or lacking knowledge and expert command of our subject matter. That is partly an artifact of graduate school training, its internalization of shame and its paranoid wariness. More potently, it is an artifact of the massive saturation of the intellectual marketplace with published knowledge and academic performances of knowledge at conferences, workshops and events. We fear exposure of ignorance because in truth, most of us are ignorant."
English professors are “a herd of displaced social workers.” [Harold Bloom]
“Most of the academic world is a vast sea of conformity, and every time a new wave of theory and methodology rolls through, all the fish try to swim in its direction. ... What ought to be most distressing to everyone is the utter predictability of the great majority of the academic criticism that gets published.” [Louis Menand]
"Tenure should make the academy a joyful, passionate, uniquely liberated place. It should lead to people taking the time to allow books to simmer and stew until they're truly a pleasure to read both outside and inside the academy, a provocative stimulus to thought. Instead, it is a crucial part of a systemic imperative that makes the academy one of the most dour, joyless, and conformist parts of contemporary American society, a hive of insecurity and anxiety." [Timothy Burke]
"Down the road, however, to stop the exploitative cycle, the professors with the plum jobs will have to show some more courage than they have so far," writes Christopher Shea in Salon. "They'll have to fight against the very trends that make their own positions so esteemed. English departments can, on their own, vote to reduce the admission of graduate students; they aren't powerless. And senior professors can -- God forbid -- go into the trenches and help teach low-level courses, taking a hit in the free time they have for research. They can refuse to accept more adjuncts in their departments. No one wants to go first -- both out of self-interest,
and because the university president will scream, "Who's going to teach freshman composition?" But let the president figure out how to create a system that doesn't lean so heavily on graduate students and adjuncts. Her solution might actually include hiring more full-time, real, English professors. More courageous would be for mediocre-or-worse departments to wave the white flag and stop admitting graduate students altogether. Do Idaho State University and Middle Tennessee State University -- ranked 126th and 127th out of 127 graduate programs by the National Research Council in 1995 -- think they are doing anyone any favors by pumping out more Ph.D.'s?"
A woman reflects, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on her years in graduate school: “Come to think of it, did anyone study art and aesthetics when I was in graduate school? I was such a coward then - I never told anyone that I thought texts should be studied for their aesthetic value as well as their political or historic significance. I was afraid that if I suggested that value was not always contingent, I'd be shipped out or something. I read in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last December that Assistant Professor of English Anne Cheng, of Berkeley, said that engaging with aesthetics has been perceived as engaging in "political quietism" and in rejecting relevant political issues. That's how I felt at Duke in the late 1980s - politically mushy.”
Similarly, Lisa Ruddick of the University of Chicago English Department writes, "I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my humanist convictions about "what sustains people"--my faith for example in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful. ... I was writing about [James]Joyce's insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead--an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I was afraid I'd be attacked for "essentializing"--for supposing that there are features, shared across cultures, that constitute the essence of being human."
And, to conclude, here's a really bogus "I'm an abject coward" confession from another humanities professor at the University of Chicago:
“I myself was not able to write freely for a general audience until I had written two scholarly books that gave me tenure and promotion to full professor.”
I call this bogus because we know for damn sure that timid Professor X was perfectly able to write freely for a general audience (he's not writing in North Korea) from the time he became literate. He is not only indulging in high status boastfulness here - he is also pretending to cowardice. Much worse than sincere cowardice, don't you think?
And how bad are things in the humanities when we can see emerging a sort of competitive race among professors toward the most abject expression of personal, moral, and intellectual cowardice?
Anyway, you get the idea, and I quote the above stuff so liberally in order to establish the following simple fact in this first post: Humanities professors are cohones-challenged. Bigtime...