Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"You got it all wrong."


Profession is published by the MLA every December. It's a weird mix of interesting articles and tendentious self-promotion by the 'big names' in the profession, and I don't always get around to reading it, but this year I did. One essay, by someone named Louis Menand, is actually somewhat interesting, not so much for his thesis or his conclusion (which I predicted from the first two paragraphs), but for some of the internal discussion.

Menand notes that the scandalous time-to-PhD average for English (a psychotic 9.8 years--UPDATE--that's time enrolled to complete the degree; if someone takes a year off, that's not included in th 9.8) is an intellectual problem as much as it is a labor problem, noting that "the profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloing itself" (very well put), and "there appears to be little change in dissertation topics in the past ten years. Everyone seems to be writing the same dissertation, and with a tool kit that has not altered much since around 1990." Oh, this is so, so, so true, (Drout says, after having read over 100 applications). Menand suggests that if it were easier to get out of a doctoral program, people would be willing to take more risks and challenge the paradigms. I doubt that length of time in a doctoral program is the only force (and Menand doesn't say it is the only one) at work in the stifling intellectual conformity on display in the files I read, but I'm sure it is a significant factor.

I think Menand is a prisoner of his generational myopia in his celebration of "humanists' skepticism about empirical forms of knowledge," and his idea that the best thing that humanists have to offer is "criticisms of ethnocentrism" (Yawn!), but he really hits the nail on the head with this:
Critical inquiry requires young Turks to keep it alive, and it is hard to see many out there on the horizon. There is a post-theory generation, bristling with an "it's all over" attitude, but when people of my generation look at the post-theory people, we recognize them immediately. They're the theory people. And their attitude is not "You got it all wrong." It's "Stop repeating yourselfs; we know this stuff better than you do." The profession could use some younger people who think that the grownups got it all wrong."

So, please, I'm speaking from the heart here, when I say, with utmost respect:

You got it all wrong.

Now, that out of the way, can we please move ahead with new forms of theory and new approaches? Can powerful people like Prof. Menand (I assume he is powerful) stop supporting the retreads and immitators and go searching for the new and the exciting? Can people please not say with a straight face that "the interaction of public space and private space" is "exciting"? (No. It is done to death, trust me on this). Can everyone please admit that tired sexual/textual puns are really not particularly groundbreaking? Does the fact that they don't even get a snicker anymore give you a clue that they're old? Let's see PMLA publish some articles that aren't same old, same old. Let's try to support the "new voices" (as, to its credit, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists has done, recently sponsoring sessions at Kalamazoo).

Like any of that would ever happen. People of Prof. Menand's generation are happy to talk revolution, but, well, we all have enough experiences of baby boomers and revolution talk that I don't need to expand.

[By the way, although I think that the theorists of the 80's did get it all wrong (or much of it wrong), I have no interest in going "back" to New Criticism and its presumed good old days in 1957. We need to come up with something new and exciting. The New Criticism's tedious "ambiguity this, ambiguity that" is just as boring as the "polyvalent this, polyvalent that" or the "ooh, look. A binary! Let's deconstruct it! for the one millionth time!" approaches of the post-structuralists.

I'm proofing the galleys of my first attempt, but it's not that we need everyone to go out and adopt my theory: we need lots of people to be coming up with new, different, theories of their own.]
and then when the baby-boomers either retire or die we can have some real fun...

UPDATE: Natalia said...Would you consider Moretti's current work theoretically innovative? YES!!! And I just read over 100 applications for a position in 18th-century (where there were novels, unlike medieval lit, which is why I wasn't previously familiar with Moretti) and not one single person mentioned his work. Not one. It's funny that as I was following that link, I was taking a break from proofing the section of HTW where I work through the Dan Sperber materialism stuff that was being quoted.
That said, I have a hunch that I'd disagree with Moretti's conclusions, but that's not the point. The point is that the approach is different and interesting.


greythistle said...

Interesting thoughts. Re: 9.8 years to degree in English, there's the little matter of how the statistics are achieved: do we include the people who ignore the dissertation to work for a few years, then return to submit something for the degree? More precisely, should the time spent doing something that pays rent but has nothing to do with doctoral training count in the same way as time spent working towards the degree, however slowly or thwartedly? Perhaps it would be difficult, or unfair, to split those who teach as GSIs from those who voluntarily adjunct at a CC or work in an industry unrelated to education. My point is only that there is some room for personal decision-making within what's cited as an average of 9.8 years--which, to be a meaningful number, must mean that quite a lot of English grads take 13-15 years.

m. smith said...

I agree, even though theory is still fairly new to me, Academia needs to break ground somehow. The only problem I see, however, is how repressive universities seem to be. The more creative I am as an undergrad, the more the traditional professors attempt to drum "acceptable" theory into me. Why is it wrong to be creative and expand on older theories, only to modernize them? What is so frightening about finding new ways into texts? What's wrong with stepping outside the norm for dissertations anyway? I know academia has certain expectations as far as quality/acceptable work are concerned, but why require the same information year, after year, after year? I want my work to stand out. I don't want to bore my professors with the same topics they read every semester. Give me some room to work, and I promise I'll produce something that will be nothing less than impressive. On a side note, if I have to analyze anything else using bianaries, I'm going to shoot myself!

Natalia said...

Would you consider Moretti's current work theoretically innovative?