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.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

National Geographic Beyond the Movie: The Return of the King
I got my copy of the National Geographic video today and, after rescuing it from the vcr that was trying to eat the tape, watched it.

Verdict on the whole thing: Much better than I'd thought. When I was first asked to be in the video, I questioned the premise of linking Lord of the Rings with people and events in history who weren't necessarily (or were even definitely not) inspirations for Tolkien. It seemed potentially silly.

But give the producer and National Geographic some credit. They managed to play up the universalism of Tolkien's ideas by showing the similarities to historical situations. They didn't try to make connections in the wrong direction (i.e., Tenzing and Hilary inspiring the Frodo/Sam relationship), but instead showed how the literature sheds light on the history.

So LotR is put to the service of some nice little history lessons, and it all comes together quite well. My wife, who had been very skeptical, ended up enjoying it.

Verdict on Me: They actually used a fair bit of the interview and they spread it through the whole piece, which is a nice compliment. I'm not embarrassed, which is a relief.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Globe Article

The Boston Globe article on Tolkien
that I was interviewed for is now out, and I guess it didn't come out too badly. I'm described as "shortish" "balding" and cocky, but I guess that's all probably true (though maybe not necessary to say it, Ethan. How about "compact, energetic and wise-looking" or "tonsured"?).
Anyway, read for yourself and see what you think.

Two minor corrections: I didn't give a paper at ISAS in Arizona; I introduced one and I'm not talking very much about the unpublished translations of Beowulf at the Gathering of the Fellowship, more in general about the relationship of the poem to Tolkien's work, particulary to the themes in Return of the King. (Though to be fair to the reporter, I probably hadn't decided on my actual talk for GoTF when I spoke to him about that stuff).

Oh, and my students do not think of me as their "friends." They all exist in perpetual and abject terror of my wrath....

Later this week I'll get to see the National Geographic Special. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Advising Week Hell finally over. Now we'll see what the registration demons do to my enrollments for spring semester. After the experience of having 51 students in a medieval lit class in which I still, insanely, assigned and have graded (and to grade) 4 short papers, one long paper, a midterm and a final, I wonder how I will have to modify my Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon classes next semester if I have gigoon enrollments. I know other faculty just decide that any large class has no papers, or only a final paper, and regular exams, but to me that seems a lousy way for students to learn medieval literature (no matter how much easier it makes my job).

UPDATE, 11/17/2003: I have ended up with 32 students in Chaucer and a mind-shattering 40 (!) in Anglo-Saxon, making my Anglo-Saxon a candidate for the largest A-S class in North American. Run, students, run! You still have time to switch to something else. Get out while you still can! Do you realize with an enrollment this high that I can push the class as hard as I want? Even if half of you drop out, I'll still have a fine class. Bwahh haa haa haa. Be ready to hit the ground running (heh, heh, heh).

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Becoming a "Tolkien Scholar"
I've been having a few conversations (email and otherwise) about how one becomes a Tolkien scholar, so I thought I would blog about it, particularly because the whole topic raises issues of credentialing, etc., that I think we in academia should be addressing right now.

It is an interesting fact that a great many of the very best contemporary Tolkien scholars are not professors: Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, Doug Anderson, David Bratman, Richard West, Carl Hostetter... many of these scholars have academic affiliations (at libraries, etc.), but they aren't professors of English or history or cultural studies. Yet they are among the best.

One big reason for this phenomenon is that Tolkien scholarship has not been an academically respected field. The only person I know who did a dissertation on Tolkien and has an academic position (and tenure) is Verlyn Flieger (also one of the very, very best Tolkien scholars ever). So, with academia rejecting Tolkien scholarship for whatever reason, the field was open for independent scholars to make a mark.

[Aside: this is not to say that indep. scholars can't make a mark in field where there is a strong academic presence, just that it is, I think, much harder. Academics have huge advantages of time and access over scholars who also have to have a real job to pay the bills. That so many indep. scholars have contributed to so many fields is testament both to the problems of academia and the brilliance of people who take the indep. route].

I am, I think, less biased against indep. scholars than many of my English colleagues because Anglo-Saxon studies has a long tradition of great independent scholars. Numismatics, place-names and local history are well-populated by 'amateurs' whom the 'experts' respect as knowing as much or more than the experts. This is a good thing.

So, in answer to people who want to contribute to Tolkien scholarship but don't have a credential: Just Do It. Study medieval lit, WWI lit, Victorian and Edwardian lit, and, most importantly, Tolkien's works themselves. Write up your conclusions and send them to me at Tolkien Studies. I'll have them anonymously reviewed and, if the reviewers agree, I'll publish them. You'll have the opportunity to be taken seriously (and thus both admired and attacked) just like any other Tolkien scholar.

To add one more thing: I am a pretty big Tolkien geek. I have read the History of Middle-earth, all twelve volumes, more than twice. I've read the LotR over 40 times and the Silmarillion about 30 times. I've memorized a lot of the poetry. I understand the logic behind the alphabets. But I know for a fact that there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about the internal elements of Middle-earth than I do. These people are enormous resources for Tolkien scholarship, and they should be encouraged and listened to, not mocked or derided. I think that my additional training in literary study, ancient languages and linguistics gives me the opportunity to add value and context to the analysis and discovery by people who work only within the materials of Middle-earth, but I don't ever pretend that I know more about Middle-earth than they do.