Saturday, November 29, 2003

Why do so many people think English professors are full of crap?
Got interested in this piece in Andrea Harris' blog and then, via another train of clicks that I can't replicate, found this discussion via Volokh.

I think there are some very important points in both posts, and even though they are on different topics, there are some unifying themes. I also thought I'd risk being one of those annoying pseudo- (but only pseudo, mind you) defenders of academia by saying that some of the commenters in Andrea's thread, and also other writers on the web whom I respect, like Stephen den Beste, are perhaps making a couple significant intellectual mistakes in their criticism of the humanities.

First, Andrea, Stephen, and commenters are exactly right in saying (in so many words), 'you should read any damn thing that gives you pleasure, and who cares what some academic dude with initials after his name says.' Absolutely true. Academics who try to 'cure' people of their reading tastes are doing an enormous disservice; it seems to me an ethical violation of sorts.

But (you knew there was a 'but' coming), literary studies, when done well, can and should enhance the pleasure you get from your reading, and they should lead you to other things that you'd also get pleasure out of, and they might even teach you how to get pleasure (and a lot of pleasure) out of texts you might otherwise think you wouldn't like.

And the criticisms in the Crooked Timber piece about post-modernism are more than reasonable. The claim of the supporters of Butler, Bhaba, et. al. is that to escape from Foucault's "prisonhouse of language" you have to be free to stretch logical and grammatical relations as far as they will go, thus opening up room for logical freedom otherwise trapped by language. I think that the 'hard' claim of the Foucaultians, that language actually and effectively stops people from arguing about certain relationships, etc., is straightforwardly contradicted by the data: Foucaultians talking about the prisonhouse of language, etc. So most people make a 'soft' claim about language: that it shapes unconscious thoughts, etc., through pre-programmed logics that are favorable to dominant power structures. But this 'soft' claim, it seems to me, doesn't justify the contradictory and incoherent writing by B, B, et. al., since the remedy for the kind of 'favored' inbuilt constructions of language would seem to be clear demonstrations of these things (i.e., 'the linguistic/logical embedded idea that black is the opposite of white is getting you to believe impossible things about people once you have classified them using this black/white system').

Ok. That was a long way to go. Anyone still with me?

The 'bad writing' among post-modernists, is, it seems to me (and here I'm in agreement with the Crooked Timber post) a way to disguise rather banal, cliched or rejected assertions. Butler's 'performative' is an example. Gender, according to her, isn't just something that 'is', it's something that has to be enacted or performed (there, I just saved you from having to read Gender Trouble). But a person isn't free to just indulge in any performance he/she wants to, since society constrains not only what those performances can be, but how they will be 'read' (there, you can now skip Bodies that Matter). There's nothing terribly objectionable about this, I think, but it reduces pretty quickly to 'so what?'

There's also another element to the argument. Philosophy, as practiced by real philosophers, is difficult. Every argument must abide by the rules of logic and, at the foundation, the principle of non-contradiction (you can't say A = ~A). But for some of the things that the postmodernists want to do, the principle of non-contradiction is a serious impediment. So you write your argument in an elaborate, circuitous way so that you end up harnessing the "slippage" between signifier and signified (Derrida modifying Saussure) so that you're asserting, logically, that A= ~A while you can deny that at any single step you said that A = ~A. Stanley Fish is particulalry good at this trick; he also uses the related trick of taking a description of something (people decide on the acceptability of a given interpretation of a text via the interaction of rhetoric and politics in 'interpretive communities') and making it into a normative statement: people should make literary judgments strictly due to the politics of interpretive communities.

Now, it may be necessary to assert that A = ~A in order to bring on the revolution, but you'll have to excuse me and a lot of other people if we find this to be a very weak foundation on which to build a theory of literature (and while we're on this, I find Fish's 'interpretive community' theory to be banal sophistry).

The problem for those of us who are literature professors and young(ish), is that the alternative to the PoMo ideology has been (or at least has been perceived to be) the kind of criticism that simply rejects any role of theory (any theory) at all. This is problematic, to say the least, not because we need theory for its own sake, but because the sorts of aesthetic judgments that people want to defend (this book is 'good' because...) come crashing down when you try to talk about aesthetics as self-evident. Self-evident to whom? The real role of a literary theory is to try to decide what the criteria are for good work. Or, if you want to just avoid the whole good/bad debate, you still want to figure out how the work of literature works, why it produces the effects it produces.

So, the old-fashioned critics invented the idea of "authorial intent." But, as Barthes and Foucault pointed out, while there almost certainly was an intent in the minds of the authors creating the works, recovering that intent, from the works themselves is, at the very least, highly problematic. I'd go so far as to say that the reasoning is circular: we know that the Beowulf poet wanted to create effect X in Beowulf because, by reading Beowulf, we find effect X, which therefore the poet wanted to put there, because he's a great poet. Why is he great? He wrote a great poem like Beowulf. I am only stereotyping a little bit here.

Now the philosophical problems with the approach I've given above should be obvious. Scholars who want to reject the PoMo approach (perhaps because it is fundamentally contaminated by Marxist assumptions not shared by many young scholars, perhaps for other reasons), have been seen to be stuck going back to the hoary "authorial intent" approaches, which, I believe, have been philosophically discredited (not merely fallen out of fashion).

Now here is where I can make this blather self-promotional, and say that my How Tradition Works book is an attempt to bypass the whole PoMo approach (well, maybe stealing some of its useful bits) and to try to find a way to approach literature and culture that is not author-intent focused and not PoMo. But that's for a different post.

Rather, I'd like to end this half of the post (the follow up will be on Tolkien, so everyone can read that; I'll post it after I see Return of the King tomorrow) by just reminding the people who are up in arms against English professors that there are serious philosophical problems that are raised by the PoMo's. I don't think that the PoMo solutions are correct, but I think to deny the problems, or to imply that academics are fools or are out to ruin literature for others, is, well, not a very productive intellectual position to take.

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