pseudopodium

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

 
I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe, cont.

A great mystery of the past two decades is just how a bunch of European philosophers and psychologists ended up in the English Departments of the New World.

A minor mystery of the past two weeks is why the moral Vincent Leitch drew from his own story (to your right) was that "close readings" should be avoided rather than that English majors don't read enough.

Wouldn't it be nice if these mysteries solved each other?

 
Question from Stephen S. Power, MA, UFlorida:
Considering how completely removed literary theory has become from the criticism of actual literary works -- a consideration the composition of your anthology may harden into a given -- do you think someday theory may be removed from the English department entirely and put either in the philosophy department, the sociology department or a new one of its own, that of cultural philosophy?

Vincent Leitch:
Let me tell a story. I just finished teaching a course to graduating English majors which had 26 students. I asked them after I taught the essay by Achebe on Heart of Darkness how many students had read the novel. Eight of 26 students had read Heart of Darkness....

Well, as we know here in Kokonino Kounty, nice things are pretty much always the things that happen!

The English Department version of "post-structuralist theory" is to the insanely engaged work of the original theorists as the English Department version of "creative writing" is to the insanely engaged work of real novelists and poets. That's what permits the two groups to be departmental rivals at all: they're playing the same game.

It's true that Derrida makes for terrible Cliffs Notes. But the problem with Cliffs Notes isn't that they get in the way of primary sources -- no one cares about primary sources -- but that they make students play a different game than the professors, and thus keep the students from assisting the professors' careers.

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe, cont.

More on academic publication, via E. B. White's horrifyingly weblog-like "One Man's Meat", Harper's, July 1941:

And here is a sheep question from Katherine Turrell, secretary of the American Cheviot Sheep Society, Oneonta, N. Y.:
"Wouldn't you like to send me an article for use in my Cheviot notes to the various sheep papers?"
Nothing would delight me more than to write exclusively about sheep, exclusively for shepherds. But I feel that I'd better relax till I know more about the subject.

One thing I learned this week was that I let my buck in with my yearling ewes too soon this winter. Such a pretty little miscalculation, though, with soft, trustful eyes and dainty black hooves! Beloved of all.

. . .

The History Department is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake

Perhaps some web-wafted premonition explains the middle-of-the-night scrawl I found with bemusement and distrust in my notebook early this morning:

"Mutual contempt, fear, dependency, and escape hatch. A free citizenry is to military personnel as autodidacts are to academics."

+ + +

Two cribs for the FAQ sheet

  1. It is when you superimpose one fixed structure over all of the possible ensembles of personal and social canons that you get a "classic," which is essentially a canon with power. And thatís not about writing or literature or literary value. Thatís about power, pure and simple: the power canon.

  2. There is a genuine value to spending oneís time talking intensely about something you love with people who share that interest. But I am very sensitive to the proclivity of the academy toward abusive relationships, both of faculty and students. And... I've never been offered an academic position that did not propose to cut my earnings by at least 40 per cent per year.
- with thanks to Ron Silliman for sitting at the desk to the front and right of me

. . .

Sheepskins & Skin-the-Goat

One of the nice things about not dying young is instead of regretting all the things you never accomplished, you get to see other people accomplish them. Like, you can imagine my relief that Patricia Highsmith's reputation has advanced to the point that a critical biography is being written without me having to lift a finger. And the nicest thing about weblog memes (jargon for "dogpile on the topic") is that it takes less time for someone else to say what you're trying to figure out how to say.

Thus I've stayed on the sidelines of the world-wide town-gown rumble long enough that notorious gown-wearer Alex Golub beat me to the punch, and punched way better than I would've. (Besides being lazy, I'm a feeb.) What follows is merely supplemental:

I know of people who treat academia as a day job (the way I treat software engineering, say), but I haven't met many. Most of the academics and ex-academics I've befriended come in one of the following easily distinguished forms:

Both have the best of motivations (love) and both seem admirable characters. Both also seem intelligent enough to realize that equally admirable characters can have very different experiences and suffer very different outcomes. What's struck me most forcefully in my limited sample set is the overwhelming extent to which one's status as sheep or goat seems to have been determined by a single factor: the relationship with one's doctoral advisor.

That's not so much the case in the day-job world. A beginning software engineer may have a bad manager first time out and soldier badly on. But even aside from disillusionment with the Community of Learning, the power of the advisor is so absolute, and modifying a post-graduate study program is so difficult, and the amount of debt thrown down the school's maw (in the present USA, at any rate) is so horrifying, that a callous, narrow-minded, self-serving, deceptive, or simply incompetent advisor can do decades of damage to a life with astonishing ease.

For me, it's never been an issue. I'm with Harvard apostate Henry Adams: tying the collaborative role of teacher to the punitive role of judge drops us into a pit of corruption; associating the sacrifice of youth and money (nowadays more money than the youth is ever likely to see again) with bell curve competition elbows our brightest ideals into a drainage ditch. Undisciplined and openly hostile toward authority, I barely achieved a B. A. -- and that only for purposes of class mobility. I live for scholarship, but much of the research I've depended on and virtually all of the learning and teaching I've done were free of institutional ties. When I wish I could make a living by scholarship, it's like wishing I had fifty million dollars, or wishing I was ruled by the just. In short, I'm no academic.

But I depend on the academies for their libraries (and now, surprisingly enough, for my paycheck) and to supply my academic friends with worthwhile happy lives. So I wish the academies well. And in that spirit I offer the following advice:

WATCH OUT FOR ADVISORS.

  Dat GOD DAMN HAT, that SHIT FAKE WIZARD!! I been his aprentice over a year an he NEVER done a trick, he never taught me nothin' but ABUSE an PAIN! Advisor damage

. . .

Back to School Special

Cholly in the classroom
Sometime during my recent exile, I encountered a repentant "postmodernist" who argued that the much vilified New Criticism started with good intentions, and that his own tribe has by now been responsible for at least as much blindness and suffering, and that a revived historicism will become ossified in its turn.

I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but it's not that impressive a moral achievement to renounce one's party during the latter part of its decline, and aside from a blanket pessimism, he left the problem undiagnosed.

Primary sources trump secondary sources. That's not in question.

The question is: Why is that truism so often (and so immediately) forgotten? Even a non-U Nonconformist can occasionally enjoy watching T. S. Eliot assume a peculiarly Possum-ish position, and I've admitted to finding Derrida both harmless and amusing. So how does an insight devolve into a method and a school and a curriculum and a catechism?

Perhaps those terms hold a clue?

Myself, I'm inclined to put the blame on the penitent's institutional allegiance rather than on literary analysis itself: in the politics of tenure and publication, the weapons of grades and evaluations....

One can gain knowledge about competitive sports, or pleasure from competitive sports; one can even meet lovers while engaged in competitive sports. But knowledge and pleasure and love are not themselves competitive sports, and any institution that treats them as such is corrupt at the root.

. . .

Francis Joins a Feral Herd

Does it seem to you that there's been a distinct lowering of tone round here lately?

Well, it's not going to get any better for a sentence or two, as one of my favorite readers, Lawrence La Riviere White, encounters one of my favorite writers, Henry Adams:

I have been reading Education for about a year now as my bathroom book (a format that certainly effects one's interpretation). One quick thought on the foibles of academic literary criticism. I am now in the chapter on the Dynamic Theory of History & finding it the least interesting part of the whole thing. I agree w/your assessment of the main lesson of the book, something like the life-long development of a comportment toward one's ignorance. I think it relates to what Adorno and/or Benjamin might have (it's a memory fragment I have yet to patch) called "hopeful pessimism": despite the truth snapping you in the face (or worse, in the case of Benjamin) at every turn, keep trying. Adam's point seems to have occurred as well to Emerson: "The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness."

But as I read the dynamic theory chapter, I think of the thousands of students preparing for PhD exams who made a precis of that chapter's argument their main notes for the book. Because it's the one thing he spelled out. & professional academic lit-crit has to go w/what's spelled out. When you have so many books to account for, you have to fall back on shorthands.

It's true: Adams's weakest point was misunderstanding science as requiring some "rule" or "law" of history. I can forgive it because it sets up the heartbreaking conclusion of The Education and because an intelligent person's foibles can be instructive in themselves.

It's harder to forgive the later writers (also often a little wobbly on science) who build on such weak points. The weight of the work is in passing insight and self-limiting aphorism while what gets cited is the grandly gassy theory, with Adams as with Nietzsche -- and, come to think of it, as with many poets and novelists foolish enough to wax pundit once or twice in their lives. (One word for Joyceans: "epiphany." He didn't even publish that one himself.)

Similar inclinations are shown by anthropologists of my own (that is, popular) culture. How many more university-funded volumes will be devoted to The Matrix than to Pirates of the Caribbean just because The Matrix speaks in familiar soundbites? Madonna strapping herself into a whalebone corset has less to do with either sexuality or transgression than with Madonna's none-too-revolutionary preconception of what her public thinks of sexuality and transgression, and in that, she's thesis-friendly. As I've demonstrated here many times, it's easier to launch a discourse on preconceptions than on the needle-pointed hæcceities of object, person, and experience.

I've sometimes expressed surprise at so much attention being devoted to that which needs neither elucidation nor perpetuation. But it makes evolutionary sense that monkeys should prefer low-hanging fruit and that we don't feel compelled to scrape our evolutionarily-valuable groins up the tree to the hard-to-reach stuff.

To switch totem species, having been trained by stick and low-hanging carrot-fruit to publicly confirm, as quickly and directly as possible, the learning of a lesson, why should the student turn against that training and insist on a slow, indirect, and uncertain route?

Some mules are just born bad, I reckon.

. . .

Francis Goes to Pasture

Lawrence La Riviere White follows up:

How much of "actual scholarship" turns out as (to use Kierkegaard's word) chatter?

For example, during the last Cornel West debacle, UC's John McWhorter weighed in against Professor West. Professor McWhorter cited his own current project, some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics (& from my small experience w/that field, those folks really can pare down an issue to the thinnest shavings). At this point I say to myself, "Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I'm sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?" Given my own experience trolling through journal after journal, I'm not going to bet my mortgage on it. & I'm not alone in this belief. Professor Wai Chee Dimock, a one-time guest of honor at our school's graduate American Studies conference, advised us to remember that the shelf life for our writing is about ten years. In other words, no one reads this stuff anyway.

What's to be done? Professor Dimock seemed to be arguing for lower standards. Don't get too hung up on anything you're doing just now, because you're going to be on to something else soon enough. If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes & it'll change. This smacks of rank professionalism to me. Don't worry about the point of the game, just play it. I am too much of a romantic, but also too much over-invested in artifacts, to keep that down. If it's pointless why don't we just skip it? More silence, please. & when we do speak, perhaps a formal recognition of the insubstantiality of our discourse. Essays instead of books. Feuillitons (why I feel that word should be translated as "firecracker"?) instead of essays. If we can't prove anything, why not have fun? Put a bit of sparkle in it!

With specific regard to our earlier attempt at understanding, he goes on to suggest that it's
not that graduate students & professors are dim, but they're not bright enough. As in, these problems are really difficult, & only the best & the brightest throughout our glorious history have made substantial progress on them. Though a recurrence of my chronic nostalgia is undoubtedly muddling me here, I think our current historicism has exacerbated this issue. Back when the problems were timeless, one could (not that many availed themselves of this option) have a certain humility before them. Who am I to claim a solution to the mind-body distinction? But now that it's all ad hoc (today's solutions for today's problems!), what's to stop me from knowing it all?

Okeh I'm getting way too muddled here, but I hope you know what I'm trying to say. Let me say this much: perhaps more explicating what has already been said but not yet understood (how about an exchange of the "always already" (a phrase from Heidegger, which explains the stink of "I know the secret!" about it) for the "never yet") & less theory-making. Or as I'd say to the kids, let's clean up the mess we've already made before we start making a new one.

Yeah, "always already" really gets my goat. Isn't that what "is" is? But for bulk search-and-replace of the phrase, Juliet Clark's suggested improvement seems more practical: "now inasmuch as ever".

I should have made it plainer that I didn't mean any offense to real scholarship. As a blustering blowhard, I'm its dependent. (And as a blustering blowhard, I'm in no position to cast stones at philosophical hubris.) What motivated me was my continuing wonder at finding the grazing land of academic journals so lightly vegetated in comparison with fanzines or little magazines or genre fiction magazines or weblogs.

After, at White's instigation, considering more closely my use of the term "real scholarship" -- in the humanities, that would include transcription and translation and correction, letters and interviews, attention directed to the previously overlooked, re-publication of the currently out-of-print -- that contrast seems slightly less wonderful. Clearly my notion of "real scholarship" is as one with my notion of good fannishness. Again, I think of the amateurish era of Joyce studies, when the bulk of a journal could be taken up by "Notes" -- aperçus, speculations, elucidations, emendations, and jokes -- and its later aridity, talking long and saying little.

Grad school can't alone be responsible for thinning that fannish energy. As proven by the tender verdancy of academic weblogs, the joy of shared discovery continues ready to burst out, given half an opportunity. There's something herbicidal about professional academic publishing itself.

... continued ...

. . .

Francis in the Army Corps of Engineers

Our too-infrequent correspondent Jessie Ferguson:

> it always seemed to me that agreement on the existence of some sort of
> outside world that had to be referred to was basically healthy. At least
> I've known some pretty sane science majors.

this is very true -- to the point of cliche? hm. i was reminded of it recently at a coffeehouse where some professor was holding office hours at a nearby table, going on and on about poststructuralist social theory. i don't hold theoretical discussions against people -- theory certainly has its place -- but i was particularly struck thinking later about the lack of real-world applications of the theories by their proponents. part of the trouble is that there is not a push for consensus among theorists or researchers in the social sciences, whereas there is in the natural sciences. there is no sense that it's "just fine" that people would do entire lifetimes of work on the same problems, taking completely divergent approaches and making incommensurable assumptions, in the sciences, because one of those sets of assumptions & approaches must be better than the other -- or else, by definition, you're looking at two different sorts of problem. so it's highly inefficient because people can waste so much time staking out their theoretical territory rather than working towards a shared body of knowledge. this is fine, i think, in fields which concern, say, pure aesthetics rather than praxis -- there doesn't have to be a Grand Unified Theory Of Jane Austen -- but it would be *helpful* if there were some very general consensus about how people are conditioned by social norms, for instance. if you didn't have completely different assumptions about human behavior being made by marxian sociologists and classical economists, both doing current work, both contributing & producing research papers, winning awards, being allowed to train other sociologists and economists or influence policy or what have you. in terms of any sort of reality, can these two (hypothetical) accounts really *both* be accurate?

to put it another way: if you ask me about the research i'm doing in biology and i say, well, i'm examining the ability of receptor x to respond to events y and z and i'm about to present the work at a conference, it would be pretty strange if i added that no matter what i said, five out of ten people were going to disagree with me -- but so what. or even something like having a paper in spectroscopy read by a particle physicist who would then declare that it was right from a chemistry perspective but wrong from a physics perspective. these things don't really happen. yet i think the "you have your story, i have mine" reply is fairly common in the social sciences and the socially-conscious humanities...

this is probably why people who do work in the humanities and actually care about the work they do get into trouble emotionally -- the only ones i've seen having a good time with it are the ones who are completely mercenary and basically see graduate school or the professoriate as a means to maintaining class privilege without the burden of a corporate job/lifestyle. by that i don't mean any disrespect. not much, anyway. to be honest, i wouldn't weep if some of those sinecures dried up -- i have a hard time believing anyone has a right to a life of the mind when it's so often a thinly disguised right to be economically supported at barely-sustainable levels at the expense of people who are no less talented or perceptive.

which... sigh... makes me sound like a socialist again. but i think it is hard fucking work enlightening people and there isn't any point in getting credit for doing it halfway... i think there is a benefit to social and cultural theory, but that in the current state of academia very few people benefit from it -- compared to the countless many who are directly affected by the Cato Institute and the World Bank and other organizations of interest to theory-loving goons. and i don't see that i have much power to change that.

so no, i don't know that i'm turning my back on the humanities themselves. i'm not writing any more papers on how milan kundera is a bastard, though.

It's true that the humanities don't support the law of noncontradiction. And I'm down with that; I'm an aesthete, not a logical positivist.

Still, it seems only fair that when we resign the duty of logical coherence, we should also give up our right to the rhetoric of indefinitely extendable "proof."

The little mystery we've been considering here is is just how empty most stuff published as humanities scholarship is. Not necessarily how foolish, or misguided, or self-conflicted it is, but how much nothin' fills the journals, and how much one nothin' tastes like another no matter what the trademark promises. Goofy Grape or Choo Choo Cherry, who can tell?

Ferguson's comparison helps clear that up for me. We can plod along in the sciences, filling crannies, verifying results or their lack, and so on, and still be producing something even if it's not discipline-shattering. But there are no negative results in the humanities: I can't construct an experiment that will convincingly prove that Lacanian analysis has nothing useful to tell us about the novels of William Dean Howells. Which leaves plodding-along humanities scholars able and prodded to demonstrate nothing-to-say one individual case at a time.

I'm afraid that Ferguson's probably also right to call this hard-won insight a cliché. Francis Bacon anticipated it, for one:

But the Idols of the Theatre are not innate, nor do they steal into the understanding secretly, but are plainly impressed and received into the mind from the play-books of philosophical systems and the perverted rules of demonstration. To attempt refutations in this case would be merely inconsistent with what I have already said: for since we agree neither upon principles nor upon demonstrations there is no place for argument. And this is so far well, inasmuch as it leaves the honour of the ancients untouched.

And in the plays of this philosophical theatre you may observe the same thing which is found in the theatre of the poets, that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as one would wish them to be, than true stories out of history.

In "the academic Left," we see the dispiriting spectacle of a holy crusade conducted against the Idols of the Marketplace for the Idols of the Theater.

It's not much of a match.

. . .

To Sir, With Cat Head

I've read a study that showed evaluations of teachers by students to be basically fair, and I believe it.

Without discomfort, I also believe the testimony that evaluations are an extortionist distraction from the real job of education.

  1. Studies use statistical methods, whereas normal human judgment is based on stereotyping from extremes and an exaggerated notion of cause-and-effect. Results differ.
  2. I'm familiar with a parallel situation: I'm sure my grades were mostly fair. Nevertheless they were a distraction, and nevertheless I mostly remember the times they were abused.
  3. I know that if I'd been offered a chance to evaluate my own teachers, there would have been no clear correlation with grades. But I also know I would've taken special pleasure in writing the worst evaluations.
As long as students are paying to be insulted, why shouldn't they share the pleasure? Intuitively, tit for tat seems better than 100% tat.

But only if tit meets tat on common ground. Merely providing new opportunities for injustice doesn't make an institution more just, and powers can't be balanced when they're measured by different coordinate systems.

In my high school, for example, woe unto the teachers who counted on the power of grades to balance the power of physical and verbal aggression. (Woe including beatings, nervous breakdowns, and deliberately engineered epileptic fits.) And the uncorrelated rankings of the athletic department and academic standards twine like old ivy over the largest universities.

To pit evaluation against grading is like saying, after an earthquake, that the building attacked the sidewalk. Under the rubble lies a spectacularly active fault line between two incommensurate value systems: money and scholarship.

Non-tenured teachers are most vulnerable to negative evaluations, while students see grades as the only return on their investment and the only way to stay in the game. In neither case is the purported mission of education a factor.

To stereotype from extremes: Whether financially desperate or pampered, today's students flame with the righteousness of the betrayed consumer, quick to attack as "elitist" anyone who would have them become less comfortable, understandably resentful of anyone who gets in the way of their loans. Today's teachers still wield nominal authority, but, given their low wages and job insecurity, may be treated more like surly bungling servants.

Today's -- and yesterday's as well, this innovation being more or less a return to the upper-class 18th-century educational stereotype of mocked tutor and abused governess, a stereotype which held even in the American university of that time....

. . .

In 1870, the political career of Henry Adams detoured into academia.

Characteristically, he made himself at home on his new perch by sawing at the limb. Having become a Harvard professor and the editor of a leading scholarly journal, for his first major article in that journal, he ransacked his distinguished grandfather's diaries and printed, with acidulous glee, the most embarrassing notes he could find from John Quincy Adams's two years at Harvard College:

However that may be, the syllogists all got together this evening and drank till not one of them could stand straight, or was sensible of what he did. A little after 9 they sallied out, and for a quarter of an hour made such a noise as might be heard at a mile distant. The tutors went out and after a short time persuaded them to disperse. Mr. —— had two squares of his windows broke.... Borland, it seems, was the most active of them all; he collared Mr. —— and threw an handful of gravel in his face, and was rather disrespectful to Mr. ——.
This excerpt may help to explain the hostility:
May 3d, 1786
We had after Prayers a Class meeting, about making a present to our Tutor. It is customary at the end of the freshman year to make a present to the Tutor of the Class: but it has been delay'd by ours to the present Time, and many would still delay it, and lay it wholly aside. The Custom, I think is a bad, one, because, it creates partialities in a Tutor, because it increases the distinction between the wealthy, and the poor Scholars, because it makes the Tutor in some measure dependent upon his Class, and because to many that Subscribe it is a considerable expence, but the Salaries of the Tutors, being so low, and it having been for many years an universal custom, I am sorry to see our Class so behind hand, and several, who could well afford it, and have really subscribed, meanly endeavouring, to put off the matter from Quarter to Quarter, till they leave College.
Here are a few additional Harvard memories which escaped publication in 1872:

May 16th, 1786
After commons as Hale, was going through the alley, an universal hiss, was heard from the juniors. This is almost the only way, that the Students here have, to keep the Tutors within any bounds. With all their pedantic despotism, they affect Popularity, and I believe the fear of hissing, or shuffling often prevents them from being so arbitrary as they would otherwise be.
August 17th, 1786
Drank tea with Mead in his Chamber which is contiguous to mine. The Club are quite in a Dilemma, how to do since the boys are sent off. They are unwilling to send Freshmen, and think it beneath their dignity to go themselves for what they want. At about 10 o'clock this evening, Stratten, a crazy fellow came, and knock'd at my door; just as I was going to bed; I opened it, and he ask'd me for some water; I told him I had none, and shut the door upon him: "Damn you, says he, do you refuse a man a little water." After thumping two or three minutes at the door, he went away, knock'd at all the doors in the entry; ran up and down stairs, came again, to my door and stamp'd at it, and finally ran to the window in the entry, push'd it up, and leapt immediately out of it. I instantly got out of my bed, went to my window, and saw him lying on the ground. After 3 or 4 minutes he began to groan "Oh! I've broke my leg." Charles had not gone to bed; I desired him to go and call up Dr. Jennison; who immediately came out. The fellow complain'd in the most doleful manner. However, after examining his leg, (for he was not at all hurt any where else) the Doctor said, there might be a bone crack'd but that none was displaced. It was with a great deal of difficulty that we were able to get Stratten, into one of the lower Rooms which is empty. He persisted for two hours in attempting to walk, for in addition to his State of mind, he was then as drunk as a beast.
November 24th, 1786
This evening, just after tea, at Chandler Ist's chamber, we were all called out by the falling of a fellow, from the top to the bottom of the stairs. He was in liquor, and tumbled in such a manner, that his head was on the lower floor, and his feet two or three steps up. When we first went out, the blood was streaming from his head, his eyes appeared fixed, and he was wholly motionless. We all supposed him dead. He soon recovered however so as to speak, and was carried off, about an hour after he fell.
May 30th, 1787
Election day. About two thirds of the Students went to Boston. Those of us who remain'd pass'd the day, in amusement; I was at Cranch's chamber the whole day. The Sophimore Class with their civil Officers at the head march'd in procession to the Hall, and as soon as they came in a pistol was fir'd by their governor. The same ceremony was repeated after commons were over. In the evening they were at Thomas's chamber, much intoxicated and very noisy. Dr. Jennison paid them a visit at nine o'clock, and sent them all to their chambers.
May 31st, 1787
The Sophimores are very fearful that their yesterday's conduct has brought them into difficulties. Mr. Reed, who found his door broken through, when he return'd from Boston, is very much incensed and will probably, take measures to discover the persons who offered the insult. Mr. Williams gave us a lecture upon a number of optical instruments. I trifled away this day.

The younger Adams claimed that his goal was to help the reader "obtain a correct idea of the gradual steps by which the standard of high education in America has been slowly raised," and I suppose I must have something similar in mind.

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Tunnel

I haven't read Theory's Empire, and I don't intend to at least until after I've read the Harry Potter novels. (I'm glad that Scott Eric Kaufman did, though.)

"Theory" isn't an empire. It has no army or navy. It's a loose and squabbling graph of autocratic-or-anarchistic city-states joined by a common dialect. In a society where more voters want creationism than evolution taught to their children and where publicly funded education has been abandoned after serial arson, "Theory" is a major problem only insofar as it becomes a major distraction.

Laughing at nonsense, mourning dullness, protesting insularity, mocking arrogant sycophants, and resisting a bullying mob all remain worthwhile exercises. But the extent to which such pleasures are initiated by the Franco-American brand as opposed to pseudo-free-market one-party-system-backed economics, religious orthodoxies, identity allegiances which reinforce the injustices that shaped them, the Great Books gated community, pop evolutionary psychology, or tin Stalins, for example seems strictly a local matter. As proven by some publications of our beloved ALSC, "Theory" is not a necessary condition for worthless blather. And, as proven by some "Theorists", humans sometimes find it possible to take ethical action even against group pressure.

For that matter closest at hand, most of the Theory-happy Long Sunday kids provide full as much entertainment value as the Valve or Crooked Timber teams. (I'll forebear pointing out the snoozier exceptions, 'cause you never know how kids might grow up, but I gotta say Lacan is the crappiest thing to hit ethical intellectuals since things happened that were worse.)

For that matter closest to my heart, some of my favorite books of the 1970s and 1980s came from writers later to be classified as canonical Theorists. And if their books' quality declined inversely to number of disciples and citations, well, couldn't as little be said of Goethe? And if the ones who didn't decline simply disappeared (Alice Jardine, where art thou?), hasn't that happened to other dedicated academics?

Although this supposedly imperializing "Theory" seems to me too amorphous to be defined any way but situationally, Holbo seems as a civilian, I'm sure I oversimplify to define it as a self-contradictory mutually-supporting set of incoherent arguments from indefensible premises. Now, dumb arguments come from all over, and Holbo's battle isn't so much against the specific absurdities of Freud, Lacan, or Baudrillard as against "Theory", so let me focus on the eclecticism.

Hopsy Pike puts on a brave face
"And now let us smile, and be as we were."

Argument is essential to human discourse, and argument which follows the rules of logic and evidence has often proven valuable in the long run, if less often profitable in the short term. Anyway, I'm a tight-ass and so that's the kind of argument I prefer.

However, the multiply dimensional world of human experience supports more logically consistent systems than one. The contemporary sciences have not been (and will not be) collapsed into subparticle physics; even contemporary mathematics is not a family of clones. One can skeptically agree there's more in heaven and earth than's covered by a single philosophy while remaining skeptical of professional mediums. The strong-stomached scholar may well find traces of argument-by-pun even in the work of such buttoned-down types as Holbo and myself.

If art could be completely subsumed by any system, it would no longer be recognizable as art. Being experience, art can become evidence or counter-evidence for arguments, but never become exactly equivalent to an argument. Therefore it's entirely to be expected and welcomed that multiple ambitious ornate abstract argumentative structures will be brought to bear on artifacts, and even that some aesthetic structure-bearers might carry more than one. But I agree with Holbo that insofar as these arguments are meant to be useful for anything but careers, it seems fair to insist that each must work on its own provisional terms. After all, a bad novel can't be redeemed by a preface in which the author says he really would have preferred to write a hit song, or Ebony White by Will Eisner's historicist explanation.

Which, by the way, I still find valuable when contemplating Ebony White.

* * *

Actually. You know? Fuck it. That's not all going on, and that's not all why I wouldn't review this.

I've had to think again today about a couple of people who fell for the shuck and suffered for that, and had to think again today about a couple of people who didn't fall for it and suffered for that. The fact of the shuck is that you need family money behind you in this great culture of ours if you're going to devote yourself to Great Culture and survive. That's the main thing teachers should be teaching any unfortunates who still manage, despite the increasing number and height of the obstacles, to make it through to high art. Why the fuck is that not the fucking point of this book? And of the books it attacks?

And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them. Yeah, I know it was different in the Thirties. In the Thirties we had the New Deal, too, and the communists hated it.

And I'm glad, I really honest to god am, that the people I admire who have that family support going for them do have that much. But, as wise singers have sung, it's a thin line between love and fuck. And if y'all really care about the little people, how about just marrying one or something?

In conclusion, I'm sure Theory's Empire is a very good book and I think people who inherit empires will enjoy it.

Responses

Ray Davis appends:
Having absented myself, I shouldn't be so shocked that this event is calling forth the best string of entries and links of the Valve's young life. I was skeptical and I was wrong.

Besides proving that no one should listen to me, this may say something about the value of outreach. Now if we can only get that many people to write something about Jack Spicer!

As usual, IMproPRieTies conveys more and pithier than I could.

Jane Dark writes:

"And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them."

Well you should meet me then. Solidly middle-class via the American magic where a tautological 60% qualify, I was raised by a single grad student, and paid my own way through college, as well as every rent check since I was sixteen, etc. Not the displaced or disempowered, by a long shot. But not a penny of family money, and none coming. But the funny thing is, I work with lots of folks, communists, anarchists, half-breeds, who're from poor families. Maybe yr hanging out with a bad crowd?

The trouble is that I never found better ones. But it's certainly possible that I gave up too quickly I can't pretend to have made it a life's goal. I thank you for the correction.

2005-08-02: Afterthoughts

In the least coherent and most controversial paragraph above, I now see that I cut off a critical intervention path with "before you even say it." How was I supposed to be brought past mere lack of personal experience if I refused to hear evidence?

I also confused matters by using the word "survive" when I more meant "survive with reasonable dignity and security."

What set off my tantrum, as I all-too-vaguely indicated, were several reminders of well-heeled "Theorists", "Buddhists", "feminists", "scholars", "artists", or, yes, "socialists" and "Marxists" treating their more skilled and harder working but less financed colleagues like scum, and several reminders of teachers, scholars, and artists still scrambling for bare subsistence after years of service. And please note that I'm not referring to differences in labeling I see no shortage of career opportunities for sexists, bigots, free marketeers, and thumpers of more traditional bibles, and if I did, I wouldn't call that a crisis. If I'd happened instead to be talking to the many, many colleagues and students bullied by well-heeled "libertarians", "free-market enconomists", "Christians", "entrepreneurs", "traditional American valuers", and so on, while simultaneously immersed in those bullies' rhetoric, I would have spewed bile at a completely different set of straw-stuffed targets.

What's that got to do with "Theory"?

Exactly!

Or, as I've been trying to write a bit more temperately in this fiery Valve thread, the "Theory" debates seem unresolvable because the terms in which they're coached ignore what motivates them: abuses of institutional power.

And of those mostly repressed issues, the one most thoroughly repressed (in the academic humanities as in the art worlds) is the economic class one starts from. A student from a wealthy family will have a far softer career in the humanities than a student from the genteel academic middle class, who in turn will have a far softer career than a student from any other class. The only person I've recently seen bring up this aspect of education and research is the ever-fresh Little Professor, and she's stayed out of the "Theory" brawls entirely.

In this very essay I replicated the mistake I deplore by restricting my attempt at rational analysis to non-economic issues, and then dissolving into Donald Duck diction under the fold.


While I wrote the above, Josh Lukin was preparing a deservedly scathing response, mostly to that one goddamn paragraph. Some excerpts:

I didn't find the claim about the personal experience terribly credible --more on that anon. But it set me off because it is such a dishonest way to frame an assertion that it tends to be a tool used by all kinds of bad actors [...] So I was brooding on that, and yes, I thought, even if the personal experience thing is true, why doesn't Ray think of the people he knows of from others, including two of the Buffalo folks above, whom I've described to him, and then I thought, my God, contact via electronic media counts as meeting. Where's the HCDavis family swag, Ray?

The previous paragraph: I don't get "devote yourself" and "make it through to high art." You don't, in the context you're using, seem to mean *produce* "high art" but rather to appreciate and consume it, and make it central to your life. There are, of course, many walks of life in which you can do that. Teaching college is not the best of them; a friend recently said to me, "Trollope had it right: civil service." Producing it, or being credentialed to publicly analyze it in an institutionalized milieu, is another thing.

"And if y'all really care about the little people . . . " Oy, this will, if unchecked, grow into James Morrow's "I consider myself unequivocally a man of the left, but I join Robert Hughes in wondering why the postmodern academy directed its energies toward unmasking gender politics in Little Dorrit while Communism fell in Eastern Europe." You're slamming the political efficacy of college teachers when it was only last year that you discovered there was such a discipline as rhet/comp and have very probably not read enough to determine what its ambitions are? Okay. There are people (mostly in the UC system) who make shamefully exaggerated claims about the political efficacy of what they do as academicians. There are a few people who do what Horowitz accuses everybody of, raising consciousness in the classroom, running courses out of which Libertarians come having decided to be civil rights attorneys or environmental activists or what have you. There are people who feel that their theoretical pursuits are worthwhile and devote some energy to defending themselves against Maoist prudes who think that their work is meaningless unless accompanied by praxis. And there are . . . back in my Youngstown days, I heard a fine English professor say, "I'm very proud of our Professional Writing and Editing program. It teaches skills that will enable our students to work in strata of society that would otherwise be closed to them." This was also where a sensation-seeking journalist asked an African American student if she minded learning African history from an Irish-American scholar--the reporter was disappointed to hear, "I don't need to be taught how to be black: I just want to take advantage of the knowledge [the professor's] expertise lets her teach me." Recalling such remarks as these in my first years as a teaching assistant, I entered the composition classroom determined to respect the wishes of students who come to the composition classroom to learn concrete principles of writing that will enable them to function in areas where such skills are regarded as standards. That's not "care about the little people"?

Plus, every Marxist professor I can think of (and I have some knowledge of the field) is an activist. [...]

We were brought up to understand that activites we took for granted here were political acts in the Soviet Union . . . you see where I'm going with this. Things that it woulda been ridiculous to frame as "acts of resistance" thirty years ago . . .

Your rant there would be an important dose of reality if it were true. Since it's not, its serves as an exorcism. A futilitarian performative. Writing "SURRENDER DOROTHY" across the sky (okay, it's a small sky. But it's a public medium, so I'll stick to my metaphor).

You cut me off in conversation once when I was trying to talk about Michaels' power and the damage he was doing, but I think it's serious, and now that he's making an intervention into jurisprudential discourse, even more disturbing. Holstun advised me once that "It's more important, I think, to figure out how we can help stop the killing and exploitation than to engage in slapping contests with the likes of Berube," but Senator Clinton was influenced by _The Nation_ to oppose Estrada, so it's worth paying attention to what has the potential to give tools to or affect opinions among the powerful (look at how the discourse of the Red Scare years operated). As Michaels demonstrates in his books, one can use the _Against Theory_ sophisms ("If, as you say," I asked Chip, "Theory gives one persmission to be as smart as possible about certain things, what does _Against Theory_ give one permission to do?") to pull the rug out from under claims concerning social justice, and to discredit the developments that Chip praises in his "Velocities of Change" essay. Let me reiterate that what gets taught to college students, as Horowitz understands, has real-world consequences.

(I can't believe I just constructed a defensive argument to justify my being passionate about issues central to my field of endeavor. When I saw "Why the fuck is that not the fucking point . . . " I realized that they'd got you too, O'Brien, but I didn't realize that my time among the reprobate would make *me* so fragile that I'd concede the need to defend what I do --Oh, I know: it's the barrier constructed by "earnestly committed to political strategizing by people without any influence whatsoever" that got to me. Schlessinger? Mary McCarthy? Judge Bazelon? The young Decter, Himmelfarb, and Etzioni, if you wunna count the possibility of rehearsal (It wasn't so long ago that the "without any influence" accusation could have been made of Atrios, or Lenin)? What does "political" mean to you people? Or is it "influence" that I'm misreading?)

I'm probably taking that argument too far. Maybe my sense that the stakes are serious here, and my frustration with much of the _Theory's Empire_-type discussions, just means that I feel it would be very nice to regard certain issues as settled and certain points as self-evident and go on from there (there's a *lot* to be gone on to), ignoring how much gets "forgotten" or ignored [...] Maybe I'm just unsettled by the parallels to what's happening on the political landscape, where to our dismay we discovered a couple of years ago that ancient, conservative Robert Byrd was the only Senator who believed that Congress should have the powers granted it by the Constitution and who disagreed with Gonzales and Yoo on the President's powers. When someone says that Searle decisively k.o.'d Derrida, I hear "Reagan defeated a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and brought down the Soviet Union." I think Berube's dismissive remarks on Michaels are probably the most appropriate level of seriousness with which to take Michaels' claims, but, as I say, one can't possibly take Dershowitz's arguments vis-a-vis human rights, history, etc. seriously, yet there they are, getting on tv and influencing people and everything.

I cut off at the '30s because I think a) that was the last time the fantasy of violent class revolt in the USA had any possible grounding (and as I've said before, I'm glad the New Deal averted a revolution: revolutions have a poor track record), and b) Stalin got to be sort of a problem for the legitimacy of Communist Parties all round.

Josh is right to note the incoherence of "high art"'s place. Am I talking about study, production, or both? My resentment comes from both, but its expression is impossibly vague: poisonous smoke protecting the sanctity of a poisonous flame.

In "care about the little people", I wasn't addressing Josh or anyone else ever likely to read the message. It was one of those awful "This poem is for Lyndon Baines Johnson, you bastard" moments.

If it sounds like I'm trying to "bait Reds" or "bash profs", I'm part of the problem, because these received concepts of what battles we're fighting only serve the interests of those who have most of the power, want all of the power, and would love our pelts hung on the wall to keep out the damp. Obviously I agree that otherwise politically inept intellectuals can (sometimes) be (slightly) useful or damaging by providing argumentative tools. But even that can't happen if you've gated yourself into a separatist community. Clinton wouldn't read The Nation if it was a Theoretical-Leninist journal.

Anyway, none of that has anything to do with what I'd set out to express, and botched.

After my attempt at clearer thinking, Josh sent me a link with the (only slightly less scathing) note:

Oh, wait, the authors and targets of Theory's Empire didn't have to write it, it's been done already.

The link goes to Jerry Herron's review of Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy, edited by Peter C. Herman. Herron finishes his review by quoting Michael Bérubé and summarizing:

And that's the trick, isn't it? Thinking of all of us who work here, as somehow being embarked on a common mission, as being citizens of the same work, which is teaching.

That's how everybody else sees us as teachers first, often teachers who seem not very interested in their jobs, or else not particularly well prepared to do them, the jobs that our fellow citizens think they are hiring us to do when they pay our salaries. If we could give ourselves a gift, that would surely be it, "to see oursels as others see us": professors, stars, grad students, part-timers, all of us. Citizens. Teachers. And once we see ourselves that way, then we ought to act as if we believed what we saw. Because it is true. Because it is the only thing, the right thing to do. And that is why this collection in many ways incomplete, short-sighted, and unsatisfactory is nevertheless a valuable book. We all ought to read it. Together. Not because it solves our problems, but because it makes clear both intentionally and not why solutions are so much of the time unthinkable.

. . .

In the Convention of the Hustlers, the Playa Hater is Chump

To "Jane Dark" and John Emerson

I'd rather prostitute myself than those I love.

Where the fuck did I get such a stupid idea?

Responses

oh dear. it isn't worth it! really!
it is worth it because these people will be running our world. playas in, playa haters out.
pimpin ain't easy

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.