Wednesday, December 29, 2004

An inconsistency or error in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising

Compare the following:

Gwen and Margaret came stumbling together out of the bedroom they shared, wearing nightdresses, rubbing their eyes. "There's no need to bellow," Barbara said reproachfully to Will (47)

Barbara, sitting on the floor beside her mother, took the little carved wooden T from her hand and added it to a row she had made on the carpet of every initial in order. "Tom, Steve, Max, Gwen, Robin and Paul, me [Barbara], Mary, James," she said. "But where's the W for Will?" (70).

Clearly there is an inconsistency here. Either "Margaret" in the first quotation should in fact be "Barbara," or "Margaret" in the first quotation should in fact be "Mary." Of the two, I think the first is more likely, since otherwise the introduction of Barbara is jarring.

This seems altogether too trivial to try to publish anywhere else, and I'm not up for weaving together an article around it (I guess it could go in a footnote if I ever publish on Cooper again -- Click here for my big article on Cooper(but you have to have a Project MUSE password, and I don't).

To me the most interesting thing about noticing this inconsistency the other night is that I've read The Dark is Rising probably 20-25 times since 1978 (I re-read every Christmas nowadays, though I didn't always), and I never noticed it before. That shows just how hard it is to keep everything perfectly consistent, even when you have editors and scholars looking over your work in multiple editings and proofings.

Which leads me to my next post, a discussion of errors in Beowulf and the Critics. Tune in tomorrow for that excitement.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Why I'm not a Conservative Literary Scholar, but I wouldn't mind having a few in my department

A Commenter at Critical Mass" asks:
"As a literature scholar, I'd like to know what 'conservative literary studies' would actually look like. Would it simply mean a return to the canon? But then again, conservative historians had examined tons of non-canonical literature long before the canon wars. Would it mean no longer talking about race, class, and gender? But regardless of how out of control those terms have become in the academy, it would be hard for *anyone* to deny that race, class, and gender have played a huge role in Western literature: sensational novels, slave narratives, chivalric romances -- how can you accurately talk about any of those without discussing the social effects of gender or race or class?

Well, the canon has already been returned to, if you mean the larger, ever-evolving canon rather than some particular syllabus from 1953 in Oxford. Especially if you look at undergraduate teaching, where students might take the (utterly useless) Literature in English GRE, you've really only had tinkerings around the margins of the canon.

I think race, class and gender would not stop being talked about but might be refigured. If you're talking about class, couldn't you do so from, say, an anti-marxist view that celebrated individualism and class mobility. A novel like Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (to my mind one of the five best American novels of the 20th century) gives a great way to talk about class, but it portrays the union works as weak, pathetic, cowardly, and the wildcat family as superhuman. Critics seem to think that's bad. As a reader I thought it was good. The problem isn't so much talking about race, class, and gender, its the particular political paradigms that are imparted as part of these studies. Maybe in some situations, union workers can be rotten and strike-breakers can be good. The complexity of life and the ability of literature to engage with that complexity should allow for powerful discussion. But sadly, a great deal of the criticism on Great Notion ignores these possiblities and turns it into a just-so story about how resisting the union is selfish and anti-social.

Would 'conservative criticism' be simply a return to aesthetics? But whose aesthetics? Those of Kant and Hegel and Heidegger, three European philosophers whose work the cultural right has deplored? It's interesting that it's thinkers like Derrida and Lyotard, far more than, say, Virginia Postrel, who have sustained a rigorous conversation about aesthetics.

First of all, Virginia Postrel is a good writing and insightful thinker, but she's not a philosopher and it would be silly to compare her directly to Derrida and Lyotard. It's like wondering why Maureen Dowd doesn't write quite as well as Hayek. But I think this list begs the question. Why do we have to go "back" to some continental view of aesthetics grounded in abstract philosophy? Why not make a new aesthetics based on, say, new developments in brain psychology and biology? What about working with scientists who deal with perception, memory and the brain's pleasure centers? Or we could look at why some ideas replicate, and other's don't, and try to explain why in terms of 'fitness,' population dynamics, idea-ecology, etc. There could be formalisms based on the rhetorical structure and ability to replicate of key elements of a cultural program, and these could be empirically as well as rationalistically tests. And if, for some reason, you insist on going back to some aesthetic philosopher or other, let me suggest Schopenhauer rather than Hegel. Please.

This is, of course, where I'd like to see literary criticism go. Of course it isn't really a "conversative" criticism at all (since, you know, I'm not a conservative). I don't want to go back to the New Criticism or to comparing every work with Homer and Virgil and deciding whether or not the poet got close enough. But talking about race, class and gender has gotten old. When I go to conferences now and people start in on the jargon, I become that dog in the FarSide cartoon that just hears blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,Ginger, blah, blah, blah. ...

If the field is boring me. a happy partisan and unabashed defender of the importance and value of literary scholarship, well, I think that illustrates a problem for the field.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bias in Academia

Rose Nunez (one of whose paintings I really want to buy) has a round-up of some discussion about the left-wing bias of academia and why it exists.

This is one of the problems that drives me crazy because there are some many conflations on both sides that it becomes almost impossible to compare apples to apples.

For example, there are two separate questions intermingled in a lot of the discussion about academic hiring: the first, is the problem of explicitly identified people with certain political positions being rejected for jobs. I have not seen this actually happen from the hiring side, because I have never seen a 'conservative' application submitted. But I state with utmost confidence that any applicant in English who somehow indicated that he or she was Republican would be passed over even if that word was never discussed. I think this is a really serious problem on one hand, but on the other, it's easy enough to disguise things like this and un-do the screen. The existence of the bias is so obvious that one can avoid it. I don't think it should exist, and I think it is small-minded, immature and pathetic to discriminate against members of the other political party (it shows that you take partisan politics way too seriously to ever be a good literary scholar, in my opinion), but it's not a killing bias.

No, the real killing bias is built into the graduate programs and the fields of literary study and the way they've accepted explicit, partisan political objectives as part of the field's definition. I also think this is pathetic. I don't need to justify medieval studies with the laugh-worthy claim that it is going to undermine some oppressive social order. I could undermine orders much more effectively as a politician or a lawyer than as a professor. But due to the deep, deep insecurity that so many humanities fields have internalized, it becomes necessary to make grandiose political claims for one's scholarship. There's an 'arms race' here where each succeeding Ph.D. has to claim that his or her research will overturn more of the social order. Ain't happenin.

This screen very effectively blocks out many individuals who haven't drunk the Kool Aid and don't believe that the reason to study medieval literature is to be able to deconstruct 21st century advertising or yammer about how much one hates Geo. Bush. You can learn to avoid this screen as well, 'talking the talk' of whatever is fashionable, and then, when you have your tenure, you can do whatever the hell you want. That's very difficult, and there's a lot of self-repression necessary, and of course this is unfair to students, but the system is only going to be changed by rebellion from within.

One thing that would help--and this is for another post, as baby did not take a long nap today and I'm doing the bobbing chicken right now--would be for people to start developing different models of scholarship that don't go 'back' to the new criticism or the old philology, but also reject, say, Foucault, Derrida, and the other continental philosophers and instead try to build something new. That's what I'm trying to do in How Tradition Works, which should be published soon. Then you'll see if it worked.

And since the NEA rejected my application today, I have no problem with that particular band of toadies and incompetents being dissolved and the savings used for kudzu eradication efforts.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Ssstupid sstudentses
This brilliant piece is being circulated through email right now. I resist the urge to pedantically 'improve' it and instead give it to you in all its glory.
Tricksy studentses. Hates them, precious, yesss, we hates them. Studentses, grubbing for gradeses, grubbing and ssscraping and ssneaking, and their heads sso empty-- ssssso empty, gollum, gollum. No brains. No scrumptiously crunchable brainses, no precious, jusst air and dussst. Dussst!

Hates them. Ssstupid sstudentses, don't even read the textbook, no preciouss. They writes, and writes, and sscrawls and scribbles-- our eyes, precious, we must ruin our poor eyeses on their scratchings-- but they don't think, do they, precious? They never thinksss. Gollum. No, no thinking for them, sstupid studentses. Too good for thinking, gollum But we'll show them, preciouss, yess.

Fail them. Fail them, precious. We can bleed bright red ink all over their nassssty homeworks, yesss, precious. We can fail the studentses. Make them cry. Make them weep and wail and sssob. Yesss.

Ssstudentss. Filthy, sstinking, ssstupid studentsss. We hatess them, we hates them forever!

Yess, precious. Gollum, gollum.