In Alvin Kernan’s book The Death of Literature there is an account of the Lady Chatterley trial. It sports a pointless and omni-directed superciliousness so relentlessly predictable that if, for example, Rebecca West is cited making a perfectly tenable statement you can rely on being told that she was displaying ‘qualities that must have once made H.G. Wells wonder what he had gotten into’.
There is in this book too much snide misrepresentation and sheer error to report in detail, but most of it pales beside the dottiness of his idea that the Chatterley trial showed ‘literature’s lack of any theoretical basis’ because the expert witnesses were unable to ‘define’ literature: it was the ‘theoretical naivety and innocence of system displayed by the literary establishment’ which made it ‘always vulnerable’ to the demolition which it suffered soon after at the hands of ‘structuralist and post-structuralist theorists’. The witnesses were not ‘defining literature’ but trying conscientiously to prevent censorship of a book which they believed should be published. The expectation that some three dozen separate cross-examinations, when assembled together, would magically turn into a collective theory of literature, seems more detached from reality than is usual even in discussions of the politics of ‘theory’. Kernan’s argument is as reductive and incoherent in general as it is inaccurate and incoherent in detail. To call it tendentious would be to ascribe to it a tendency.
The book’s sloppy reasoning and its brittle and erratic sarcasms are of interest because they reflect a loss of morale in literary studies. The soft cynicism and undiscriminating disaffection are symptoms of a defeatism which is both understandable and deplorable. The Death of Literature is the third volume of a series in which Kernan has been concerned with the overtaking of print culture by the electronic media, and with various aspects of the academicisation of literature in our time. Its two predecessors, The Imaginary Library (1982) and Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print (first published in 1987 as Printing Technology, Letters and Samuel Johnson), which were issued by a different publisher, were less sourly jokey and less apocalyptic. The first in particular contained penetrating analysis of the way in which the proliferation of literature departments in universities had created a new reading public, receptive to books which could only be read by people experienced in the routines of classroom explication. The economics of publishing encouraged the production of novels and poems of the kind university instructors would be tempted to write about, thus furthering their careers, and to assign to their classes, thus bringing in profits, the college market in the United States being very large. This suggested important perceptions (not always followed through) into the origins and character of some products of the Post-Modern imagination, and raised the question of the desirability for a literary culture of being too closely tied to universities.
He also argued that serious literature, including older books, was hardly read outside the universities, and reported a drop in enrolments. David Lehman’s Signs of the Times similarly notes the ‘disquieting fact that the number of students electing to major in literature has steadily declined over the last twenty years’. The question of ‘theory’ is bound up with this, since, in Lehman’s view, it seems probable ‘that the student with an authentic literary vocation may be the one who feels least at home with the academic orthodoxies of our day.’ According to an opposite scenario, theory owes its proliferation to large numbers of instructors and students who come to literature departments without much desire to read books.
Both Kernan’s and Lehman’s declarations about declining enrolments come without much differentiation or analysis. In the micro-perspective of a few universities known to me in the last twelve years or so, the numbers have remained large. It may be that they were too large in the past, in the sense that they included people who had no liking for the subject, as they still do. Kernan’s outlook, evidently exacerbated by the warfare over theory and related discontents, seems to have hardened in this new book. In intensifying his insistence that ‘literature has been almost entirely institutionalised ... inside the university,’ he has advanced to a position which misrepresents the real problem. It does not seem true that ‘older works’ are exclusively ‘preserved by teaching and kept in print by classroom demand for texts’. Kernan’s earlier analysis of a ‘literature of the present’ written for academics still has force but is beginning to seem overstated. Writers go on writing, not only ‘stiffly superior to and scornful of professors, in the manner of Gore Vidal’, but also in other manners, and in some cases not ‘stiffly superior’ but simply indifferent to or unconscious of professors, an idea that doesn’t seem to enter the minds of some academics as being within the realm of possibility, and there are plainly readers who read them outside the classroom.
Kernan correctly reports the disturbing ‘violence and even hatred with which the old literature was deconstructed by those who earn their living teaching and writing about it’. His belief that ‘the attack has abated, the old literature being stone dead’ seems wrong on both points. He continues: ‘at the moment, in 1990, the most popular subjects of criticism and undergraduate or graduate courses are still those that demonstrate how meaningless, or paradoxically, how wicked and anti-progressive, the old literature has been, how meaningless is its language, how badly it has treated those who are not white, how regularly it has voiced an aristocratic jackbooted ethos or propagandised for a brutally materialistic capitalism.’
I’m not sure what the evidence is that these are ‘the most popular subjects’, or whether Kernan has tested this proposition statistically in the classroom, as distinct from exposing himself to the trade journals or scanning the programme of the Modern Language Association of America. My own observation of students, including some ‘who are not white’, suggests that they retain a pretty live interest in ‘the old literature’, though it is reported that in many universities some of the teachers discourage this, sometimes to the point of intimidation or penalty. There is professional misconduct, bordering on intellectual terrorism in extreme cases, and I shall return to this. It’s certainly nothing to be complacent about, but it isn’t helped by the sort of unresisting mindlessness which keeps sputtering on that literature is ‘stone dead’ or ‘was soon, shown to be a farrago made up of poetry and prose, fiction and fact’. This factitious bowing to the inevitable, the parade of ‘realism’ which won’t even condescend to say whether this is good or bad, let alone how it should be resisted, seem cheap. They are the flipside of an abdication of vigilance on the part of senior academics and administrators, who presided uncritically over the freewheeling expansion of the discipline and allowed it to be invaded by elements radically uninterested in either scholarship or literature, and whose successors are now limply acquiescing in, and even abetting, a hijacking of the classroom by militant proponents of special interest groups.
Literature in universities, because of certain peculiarities both in the nature of the subject and in the (endlessly retold) history of its institutionalisation, became a haven for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything else. As Donald Davie pointed out some years ago, many of them didn’t like, or had no interest in, what they were supposed to teach and had to find something other than reading books to occupy their considerable supplies of energy and time. This is the result of a proliferation, in universities of the affluent West, of literature departments on a scale far beyond anything necessary or healthy for the maintenance of an informed and thoughtful awareness of good writing. There is a clear connection between this situation and the flowering of modes of literary theory which propose that it is equal to, or better than, or independent of, the texts from which it arises or which it professes to be studying, and which there is an increasing disposition to ignore or bypass. Pedagogues are beginning to be heard to say that it might be possible to take a degree in literature without reading any books. The more politicised versions of this are often perpetrated by persons who wouldn’t be given house-room in a department of political science, just as the philosophical pretensions of most literary theorists are derided by professional philosophers.
English in its academic guise is one of those subjects which one can get away with doing badly on a scale unthinkable in physics, or economics, or even history, partly because successive ideologies of the discipline have maintained an investment in uncoupling it from the idea of a body of knowledge, so that it has developed a strong mood of resistance to fact. For similar reasons it is more vulnerable than most, certainly than some of the sciences that literary theorists sometimes like to think they are emulating, to being factitiously politicised: Marxist or feminist readings of ‘Three Blind Mice’ would be unlikely in a zoology course.
The discontents of literature in universities would have been less likely to occur if people with no interest in literature weren’t given endless opportunities of teaching and writing about it. Since these opportunities can’t be thought to have been created by any of society’s pragmatic needs, they may be thought of as luxuries of affluence. Kernan notes that the disparagement he describes doesn’t exist in poorer countries. ‘Only in the Third World, Latin America, Africa and Asia do the novel and poetry have something like the cultural power they exercised in the West as recently as two or three generations ago.’ In the Second World of Eastern Europe, as René Wellek once pointed out, literature was also taken very seriously: seriously enough to be written and read at great personal risk, and to be thought worth suppressing by the authorities. Certainly the universities provided very little time or personnel for its unfettered study.
Kernan offers an interesting account of how dropping enrolments and a shrinking job market in the Seventies and Eighties created a situation in which ‘highly educated young people who had expected to become scholars and professors of literature at distinguished universities slipped back down the social scale to being poorly paid writing masters at marginal colleges with minimal admission and retention standards.’ They felt ‘betrayed by the establishment that had recruited and trained them ... it looked not like a treason of the clerks so much as a trahison des maîtres’ (Kernan cultivates a jumbo stylishness in the varying of French phrases, another example being the description of an MLA disturbance of 1968 as a coup d’hôtel). ‘The disappointment radicalised them’ and ‘they naturally ... delighted in the critical iconoclasm that ripped the guts out of the old literature, and eagerly welcomed the new professional democracy that levelled all critics and made all interpretations equal.’
This situation was replayed with variations in Britain, where the drop in enrolments, in a much smaller university system with a highly restricted entry, was a less conspicuous factor than the shortage of places, but where the impact of a declining economy in the Seventies and the slashing of university budgets in the Thatcher era reduced the number of new appointments in the humanities to almost zero. Whereas in America recruitment at institutions of every kind continued without interruption though on a reduced scale, British universities were unable to provide jobs for some of their most outstanding graduates, with the result that people often more talented than those who taught them were being turned away. Resentment was aggravated by the binary divide in British education, which denied the status of universities to polytechnics.
That said, it remains an interesting difference that the spread of radicalised theory in the United States originated from the élite institutions and permeated downwards, whereas in Britain the process, though influenced by highly-placed ideologues from America and France, originated from below and has achieved only limited penetration (partly because of the sluggish state of professional mobility) in the higher sectors. Moreover, while British universities have remained relatively resistant to the theory takeover, in America it is still in the more prestigious institutions (to which should be added one or two campuses which set a very high cash value on competing with them) that one finds the more powerfully entrenched cells. In France, things seem different again. Many of the initiating influences came, as in the United States, from above, from the stratosphere of the grandes écoles and their like, leaving the universities, as in Britain, relatively untouched. The spread has been neither upward nor downward, but lateral and extra-territorial, mostly (in bad translations) to the Anglophone world: Lehman says Deconstruction was short-lived in France, and I have heard Derrida described as a vedette américaine. Paul de Man seems to be largely unknown in French intellectual life.
For all his knowingness to the effect that the real world is a bigger place than the academy and one to whose pressures the academy, including the literary sub-cultures, are subject, Kernan is imprisoned in the eerily disconnected idea that departments of literature are the nerve centre of the body politic. In this he resembles the radical theorists he deplores. He correctly says that the takeover of the MLA in 1968 was not like the Cultural Revolution in China, nor comparable to the violence on the streets of Paris or in German universities in and around that particular year. But having gradually reduced the terms of his comparison, he then escalates it vertiginously: ‘It was an intellectual rather than a street revolution that dismantled the old literary order. Literary criticism was the chief weapon, and the revolution proceeded in much the same way as the Philosophes had in discrediting the mysteries of the ancien régime.’
A squabble in the scholarly guild is first treated with the contempt it seemed proper to suggest it deserved (Kernan passes up no opportunities for displaying contempt, even when that runs contrary to the general tendency of his argument) and then redefined as something resembling the ideological prelude to the French Revolution. An accurate index of the difference between the Philosophes and some pedagogues of the MLA might be gained by estimating their respective relevance to the revolutions of 1789 and 1989. Throughout 1989, moreover, the pedagogues were locked into an ideological make-believe in which they saw themselves as promoters of an ideology which had been imposed several decades ago on unconsenting societies in the real life of less fortunate places, and which was now being dismantled in large portions of the world to the evident relief of whole populations. Kernan’s phrasing not only concedes the case of those who, in a parish version of the Rousseauist doctrine that high culture and its polite accoutrements are the allies of oppression, persuade themselves that in practising literary theory for the edification of a few colleagues they are engaged in a revolutionary act. Kernan is himself obsessed by the analogy, going on and on about literary sansculottes, rentier authors and other revolutionary monsters.
Don’t be misled by the snap, crackle and pop of sarcastic phrases. Kernan really believes the revolution has happened, really believes that people really believe that ‘language now writes, not the author, in Heidegger’s famous phrasing.’ He believes that because Geoffrey Hartman ‘has argued provocatively that criticism today is at least as creative as contemporary literature,’ the notion has become a fact of the culture: ‘Criticism almost single-handedly, the writers seemingly having nothing to say in the matter, turned literature around in a way that by now, whatever the consequences, is irreversible.’ Who says? Has he asked anyone who has recently read a novel or a poem or even wandered into a bookshop? Does anyone think either thing except a small proportion of the small proportion of those who have read, or have heard of, Geoffrey Hartman, distinguished and talented as the latter is (and given, in his time, to quite striking demonstrations of contrary principles). ‘The sharp decline in the quality of novels, poems, and plays of recent years offered an opportunity for the critic to gain some ground on the author, and the “adversary culture’s” attempts to seize power in the 1960s offered the occasion.’ Which decline, from what? Which novels, poems and plays? And who, other than other ‘critics’, in the sense here employed, reads the critics? Can it be that all Kernan is saying is that these critics no longer read novels, poems or plays, only each other, and that this is the death of literature?
Kernan cites interesting statistics which show that despite his argument that television and computer technology have pretty well eliminated the experience of reading, the number of books being published has steadily increased: 11,022 in the United States in 1950, 36,071 in 1970, 45,182 in 1979 (dollar revenues respectively of 500 million, 2.9 billion and 7 billion). ‘It may well be that the Gutenberg age will come to an end not in the kind of absence of books that Huxley predicts for the future in Brave New World, where there is a single copy of Shakespeare left, but in a bibliographic surplus of the kind that Diderot foresaw at the beginning of the high days of print.’
In fact, the statistics he invokes mostly refer to other kinds of book than ‘Shakespeare’, and so did Diderot when he foresaw that the number of books in the world would one day become so vast that no one would ever be able to know what was in them, or to know, when embarking on an investigation, whether the answer was or wasn’t already available. Modern learning, in most fields, is evidently already in that state. It multiplies itself in such a way that the impossible accumulation of books can only be negotiated with the help of further publications which mediate among them. Such things, in literary studies, include various kinds of reference book, readers’ guide, and so on. Literary criticism sometimes provides a more sophisticated version, though current notions that play down its ancillary role and claim for it a parity with other discourses, would deny it what is perhaps its most useful function. These mediating discourses have themselves proliferated to the point where no one can read all of them as well as the books they’re about, so that a new phenomenon has arisen in which the mediators write only for other mediators.
Meanwhile, rudely bypassing the mediators, large numbers go on buying not only the reprints by Penguin or World’s Classics of Shakespeare or the early novelists, but lots of new writing, including the middle-to-high-brow fiction that comes up for literary prizes. The book-reading statistics Kernan gives for Britain, showing that in 1988 ‘almost three-quarters of the British public buy no books,’ suggests to me that more than a quarter, many millions, do buy them, sometimes abetted rather than otherwise by the electronic media. A recent TV programme in Britain on the Lady Chatterley case even caused a run on a 1990 reissue of C.H. Rolph’s book on the trial, both in bookshops and libraries, as I found when, having read Kernan’s account on a plane, and with my own 1961 copy on the wrong side of the Atlantic, I wanted to verify some of the facts. While a film or television production of an older novel or play, far from substituting for the original, often stimulates its profitable republication, the critical lucubrations on the same novel by a deconstructor tend to have the opposite effect. Fellow deconstructors might read only the deconstruction, deconstructing that for further exercises in the kind, while baffled readers are simply put off. Exceptions of an unexpected sort occur: thus Barbara Johnson’s reading of Derrida’s reading of Lacan’s reading of Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’ may drive one to an otherwise unseductive original for sheer relief from its interpreters.
Literary theory has always existed, simultaneously valued and distrusted. Poets and novelists have engaged in it with distinction, and also professed a distaste for its abstraction or prescriptiveness. Such tensions are inseparable from any serious thinking about literature. The fact may have a bearing on Gerald Graff’s claim in Professing Literature that the present warfare over theory is a replay of all previous academic disputes about the teaching of literature since English studies were first introduced as a university subject. His book makes some telling points about the recurrence of certain themes, and is a valuable contribution to the anthropology of the tribe. Part of its argument seems inexact to the extent that the present vogue for theory differs from most previous curricular agendas in the degree of its abandonment of any pretence to be contributing to the study of either authors or works. Gore Vidal was not oversimplifying much when he said that if ‘the old New Criticism separated Author from Text,’ the new Theory has got rid of the Text and comes over ‘etherised, as it were, upon a tabula rasa’. What is new in the present situation is that Theory is offered, not as an adjunct to the reading of books, but as a replacement of that process, or at best as an autonomous and rival activity which may exist independently of it.
Kernan’s view that this has fatally contaminated the student consumer, or the reading public at large, is irresponsibly overstated. His acquiescent pessimism is dangerous, not because optimism is the appropriate alternative, but because grossly illiberal forces are, partly in the name of theory, engaged in an institutional power play which has largely abandoned any pretence of intellectual persuasion or debate and even shown some inclination to suppress them. It is not that literature is dead or lacks readers, but that universities are being pressed to close it down. A disenchanted jem’ en-foutisme or sour do-nothing defeatism is hardly the way to confront this.
The identification of theory with a more or less coercive political agenda has been pointed out from time to time, and its more triumphalising publicists are increasingly open and even boastful on the subject. It has merged with the wider issues of ‘political, correctness’, ‘multiculturalism’, and one or two other phenomena which have lately attracted worries of a ‘new McCarthyism’. An article in the Wall Street Journal of 13 November 1990 reported the now notorious affaire in which Stanley Fish, Chairman of the English Department at Duke University and a major national power-broker of the theory trade, wrote to the Provost of the University demanding that local members of the National Association of Scholars should be banned from ‘key committees involving tenure or curriculum decisions’, subsequently affirming that the organisation was ‘racist, sexist and homophobic’. The NAS is said to be dedicated to the preservation of traditional scholarship. The founder of its Duke University branch is James David Barber, a civil rights activist and past president of Amnesty International, which suggests that the association may be something other than a hotbed of reactionary prejudice. At all events, Fish circulated his letter among a handful of ‘trusted colleagues’, one of whom ‘was sufficiently taken aback by its contents to see that it was made public’. When the campus newspaper broke the story, ‘Prof. Fish denied ever saying that NAS members should be excluded from tenure and curricular committees. “It was really strange to hear him say that,” a student editor marvelled. “We had the letter with his own words asking just that, right in front of us.” ’ Fish ‘declared himself unavailable for comment’.
But not for long. Two months later, Fish was being reported in the New Republic (18 February 1991) as having said that he didn’t believe ‘free speech’ was anything ‘more than an expression of power’. A graduate student asked him to elaborate: ‘“I want them,” responds Fish, referring to students and faculty, “to do what I tell them to.” Later, he explains to a small group: “I want to be able to walk into any first-rate faculty anywhere and dominate it, shape it to my will. I’m fascinated by my own will.” ’
At this point, with the issue reduced to the egocentric billowings of an individual, the example would seem to lose its representative status. This is not so, however, for several reasons. One is that coercive egomania on this scale has become an institutional feature of literary studies. It goes with positions of tribal leadership in a discipline not formerly given to the unquestioning worship of intellectual thuggery, and the damage it does to the educational process is something we should be thinking about. A variant case, reported on in Lehman’s book, is that of Derrida. An equally soft-spoken authority called Houston Baker, on record as saying that choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck is ‘no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza’, and that his ‘career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards’, can nowadays be elected President of the MLA. It seems evident that such an out-look would not get him very far in the fast food business, which adds countenance to the proposition that people go into English studies because they’re unlikely to make a success of anything else.
Secondly, this style of egomania attracts to itself and to its hangers-on – in the form of salaries, support services, perks, lecture fees and the expensive hoopla of conferences and other promotional circuses – immense sums of money which would be better spent on more urgent educational priorities, including better schools for some of the disadvantaged groups on whose behalf, it seems, Professor Fish and his analogues will only go so far as to limit the free speech of others.
A third feature of this coerciveness is that it has its institutional reflection in codes of behaviour which the university to which Fish belongs is seeking to impose on its members. The New Republic reports, for example, that Duke University
has initiated a group with the Committee on Public Safety-like title of ‘Committee to Address Discrimination in the Classroom’. This body, which was given the charge of uncovering faculty racism in the classroom, found very little in the way of overt bias. But in its monitoring of the classroom it did discover examples of ‘disrespectful facial expressions or body language aimed at black students’. The committee has promised to continue its work.
Duke, you may say, is perhaps unusual. Once a traditional and unflamboyant institution, it decided a few years ago to go trendy. With the aid of the entrepreneurial Fish it has collected the biggest and loudest assembly of literature professors dedicated to Kernan’s scenario of doing dirt on literature (a nest of singing turds, as one disaffected wit described them). It is the world’s largest hypermarket of hard theory, as well as of applied multiculturalism, and the launching-pad for more round-the-clock attention-seeking fatuities than there were air sorties in the Gulf War.
But it’s evidently not the only place where a thought police, or body-language police, is getting into gear. A programme at Tulane University in New Orleans is being set up in which ‘faculty and students will be encouraged to report on each other’ for signs of racism and sexism, with every department watched by ‘an “Enrichment Liaison Person” to inform the administration about continuing progress in ... the “Initiatives” ’, according to an anguished letter to the press from the Chairman of the Political Science Department. Many universities have more or less avowedly institutionalised the practice, in making appointments or promotions, of preferential treatment on grounds other than the candidate’s contribution to knowledge or his or her intellectual ability. These not only include the candidate’s race, sex or sexual preference, but the correctness of his or her opinions. One result of this is that departments which used to make themselves mediocre by preferring white males over better-qualified women or blacks are now making themselves doubly mediocre by the same process in reverse, with many of the original second-raters still in place. This seems bad not only for scholarship but also for race and gender relations.
The American press (Newsweek and the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, regional dailies and the campus papers) have picked this up in recent months, with predictable references to Orwellian nightmare and McCarthyism. David Lehman reports the ‘commonplace wisdom among job-seekers at MLA conventions that ... if you want to make it in the criticism racket, you have to be a deconstructionist or a Marxist or a feminist. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance.’ There is no doubt that this is the advice given to graduate students when they are considering their research topic, by advisers who may be motivated as much by a realistic estimate of the student’s career prospects as by a political agenda of their own.
One hears frequently of students being told that their essay isn’t deconstructive enough or feminist enough. Undergraduates report that they find deconstruction a great yawn, to their credit, which is roughly what deconstructors seem to feel about undergraduates, to their discredit. What this suggests is that there are in universities students interested in and responsive to the traditional reading experience, as well as teachers who aren’t. That problem has always been with us, in varying proportions. The young are usually good judges of the pedantry of their elders, and the best survive it rather well. There would be every reason to assume that the new pedantry might fare no better than the old but for the fact that the cards are stacked by unprofessional conduct on the part of individuals, and by the panic-stricken adoption of crudely extra-professional criteria on the part of the institutions. Such abuses of decent working ethics are now occurring on a large scale.
Among possible solutions or palliatives, two have been given some currency in recent books. Since literature departments are now staffed by large numbers who don’t much enjoy reading books and prefer either to use them for other purposes or to study other modes of communication, it might seem appealing to hive off such elements into separate institutional, units. These already exist in some places as departments of Communication Studies or Cultural Studies. This arrangement would allow those who wish to pursue a more traditional curriculum to remain in existing departments of literature, while permitting what are in effect alternative disciplines to compete in the academic marketplace.
There are pessimistic predictions that the new units would become dominant and these predictions would be consistent with Kernan’s sense that their proponents have already more or less taken over. If that is so, there is much to be said for accepting the situation and allowing literature departments to become smaller and separate: they are likely, on current form, to be healthier that way, and very unlikely, from my sense of the human reality on the ground, to perish. It seems probable that in some universities the theorists and cultural commissars will resist such a separation, which threatens to deprive them of a cover of respectability.
A version of the idea of dividing the territory has been offered in Bernard Bergonzi’s recent book, Exploding English. His arrangement would give the opposition all literature except poetry and Elizabethan and Jacobean poetic drama. This scenario is a compromise without any visible rationale other than the time-honoured shuffle of giving a little to A and a little to B for the sake of a quiet life. In this regard, it has something in common with Kernan’s nihilism.
An alternative and more activist proposal, chiefly identified with Gerald Graff, seeks tribal containment rather than separation. His idea is to institutionalise the rivalries and conflicts by absorbing them as in themselves integral constituents of the curriculum. Kernam briefly summarises Graff’s analysis but makes no comment on the practical proposal, though he has more recently aligned himself in some general sense with both Graff and Bergonzi. Bergonzi thinks Graff’s idea ‘utopian’, and also that it might work in a good American graduate school (it’s not clear whether he identifies such a place as Utopia, and if so whether in the sense of ‘good place’ or of ‘no place’) but not in any part of British literary education. One wonders whether the real objection for Bergonzi is that the latter is nearer home. Certainly he invokes the do-nothing rhetoric of the committee-sage: ‘Graff’s proposals for a structured pluralism are admirable in theory, but in practice they would, I fear ...’ The sentence may be completed in your own words.
Bergonzi has a legitimate worry about exercises in theoretical disputation where ‘the extent of prior knowledge’ is ‘variable’. He also thinks ‘undergraduates of moderate ability do not much like being asked to choose, between differing judgments on the same text.’ The real objection might have to do with the usefulness or intellectual respectability of inviting anyone to discuss theoretical positions without a substantial experience of the primary texts on which the theorising is based. To expose students not only to a theory of what reading might be like if they tried it, but to a conflicting babel of theories, seems ghoulish, though Graff has some promising ideas about studying particular texts from several conflicting perspectives.
Something apparently resembling Graff’s model for internalising fundamental controversy into the curriculum has been proposed in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Gifford Lectures. This learned and thoughtful book is concerned with the problem of ‘incommensurable’ positions in theology and in moral philosophy and with the means of providing a forum for rational debate among them. MacIntyre invokes the model of the University of Paris in the 13th century, where ‘Augustinians and Aristotelians each conducted their own systematic enquiries while at the same time engaging in systematic controversy.’ He calls for ‘a restoration of the link between the lecture and the disputation but also a recognition that the lecturer speaks not with the voice of a single acknowledged authoritative reason, but as one committed to some particular partisan standpoint.’ MacIntyre’s proposals are perhaps more naturally applicable within philosophy and related subjects, where the issues in dispute and the actual exercise of disputation both come within the normal scope of the discipline.
MacIntyre appears to think, perhaps rightly, that moral philosophy derives its validations differently from some other disciplines. He argues that ‘the success of the natural sciences has conferred prestige upon technique as such’; that this has rubbed off on the humanities and social sciences; and that ‘agreement on technique has often been allowed to substitute for agreement on matters of substance.’ He grants that there are areas where the status conferred on ‘technique’ is genuinely fruitful (‘analytic philosophy, linguistics and economics’), though he also sees ‘a mimicking of the technical where it has in fact no application’. Students of literary critical fashions long before the advent of ‘theory’ have been familiar with the mechanical application of methodological routines, and Thomas Pavel has recently argued in The Feud of Language that the Structuralist and Post-Structuralist critics who claim to derive their methods from linguistics understand ‘neither the technical aspects of linguistics nor the theoretical stakes involved’.
MacIntyre himself doesn’t see much sign of ‘technical expertise or of its simulacra’ in literary studies, and his suggestion seems to be that the ‘limitless disagreement’ available in that field isn’t sufficiently important to be either excluded or remedied – or even marginalised. But if MacIntyre’s proposals are mainly conceived for ‘moral and theological enquiry’, they nevertheless have applications ‘elsewhere’, and in the areas where the moral and theological enquiry involves interpretation of texts, potential analogies with literary studies may suggest themselves. Where each teacher has the dual role of partisan advocate of a point of view, and responsible guarantor of the institutional recognition of conflicting ideologies and methods, MacIntyre insists on the obligation to teach students ‘to read scrupulously and carefully in order to possess a text in a way which enables them to arrive at independent interpretative judgments, so that they can on occasion protect themselves against too facile an acceptance of – or indeed too facile a rejection of – their teachers’ interpretations’.
Regrettably few ‘adherents of rival and conflicting views’ in literary studies behave in this way. Many students whose essays have been found wanting in their deconstructive or feminist credentials testify to that. This problem might sometimes seem a matter not so much of differing ideologies as of professional misconduct, and the scale of the problem may be measured by the invariable riposte that one man’s professional misconduct is another man’s ideological conviction (the idea that not forcing a student’s opinions is itself political, maintaining the status quo etc, is brought out of mothballs on such occasions with all the glee of a child showing off a new toy). I suspect that some of this could be countered by measures which ensure that the students really do ‘possess’ the text at issue: for this it is essential that they should read it and be examined for their basic knowledge of its contents. This in itself seems anathema to many, the idea of examining for detailed knowledge being identified either with elementary school or the police state.
Lehman’s Signs of the Times examines the impact of Deconstruction in the United States. It does not engage in technical debate as John Ellis or Thomas Pavel have done, and is not an academic but a ‘journalistic’ book: journalistic in an honourable sense, which will doubtless not be immune from the sanctimonious sneers of the high priests of the de Man cult, who freely use journalism to decry the journalism of those who reported the Nazi sympathies of their dead leader’s wartime journalism.
What Lehman offers is a survey of the current fortunes of Deconstruction as a professional or ideological routine, and especially as a talismanic or valorising term, in American intellectual life, and of its penetration into other disciplines than literature. He also gives the fullest account I have seen of the known biographical facts about de Man, which apparently include financial irregularities, possible bigamy, a Rousseauistic callousness towards the children of his first marriage, as well as Nazi collaboration and four decades of mendacity or dissimulation on most of these subjects.
Lehman offers good coverage of the gobbledegook and doublethink brought to bear in de Man’s defence: ‘De Man’s entire writing effort is a silent trace of the reality of an event whose very historicity, borne out by the author’s own catastrophic experience, has occurred precisely as the event of the preclusion – the event of the impossibility – of its own witnessing’; ‘only the trivially guilt-ridden pathology of bitter academics who have always resented de Man’s intellectual, i.e. critical, power would want de Man to have inscribed himself in a conversion narrative’; and, especially startling as refutations of alleged anti-semitism go, ‘are not, indeed, Paul de Man and his deconstruction somehow overwhelmingly Jewish – as Jewish as anyone, in our multinational 1980s, can be?’
The fullest coverage is reserved for Derrida’s responses in the journal Critical Inquiry, which assail the assailants with the finesse of Ubu Roi and the conciseness of Castro. The second rejoinder, engagingly entitled ‘Biodegradables’, is longer than all six answers to his first defence put together, and must be the most voluminous mixture of Shandean self-exhibition and vulgar abuse ever to have been allowed into a journal professedly committed to rational discourse. The English text of these pieces incidentally suggests in places that Derrida and his translator do not have between them a sufficient knowledge of both English and French to know that he doesn’t mean what he is sometimes represented as saying. Since Derrida regularly lectures in America, and since his American readers read him in translations from the French, the potential for misprision opens up as an abyss of truly continental proportions.
Derrida’s inordinate polemical scripts are the written counterpart of his lecturing style, an advanced case of galloping logorrhoea. The audiences are vast, but with definite signs of shrinkage as the days go by, and Lehmen wonderfully describes a scene at Cornell in 1988: ‘The undergraduate sitting behind me whispered excitedly to her companion, “He isn’t God,” in the tone of one who is trying to persuade herself of something.’ The subject was ‘The Politics of Friendship’. On the Monday,
he commenced his lecture by quoting Montaigne, who was himself citing Aristotle: ‘O my friends, there is no friend.’ The two parts of the sentence are incompatible, Derrida observed. If there is no friend, to whom am I speaking? Or, with a shift in the formal emphasis: if I can address you as my friends, how can I say there is no friend?
The following Wednesday, with his audience halved but still running into hundreds, he addressed ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’:
‘Fraternity? Cela suffit!’ he said. Fraternity ... was exclusionary ... True friendship is understood as possible between two men but never between a man and a woman or between two women. ‘The double exclusion privileges the brother, even above the father,’ Derrida said – fighting words in a discourse in which patriarchy is in as much disrepute as, say, phallogocentrism ....
On Friday it was question-time. The scene switches to a ballet of ingratiating interrogations, fielded with deprecatory simpers or oracular condescension. But watch the punchline:
A professor of Romance studies tossed him a verbal bouquet, or tried to. He observed that a certain passage in Montaigne’s essay on friendship is ‘the most Derrida-like passage in Montaigne’. (Derrida disagreed.) ... With the air of the star pupil, a literature professor returned to ‘O my friends there is no friend.’ Was the ‘asymmetry’ in the apostrophe not an example of the ‘breakdown between performative and constative language’?
This afforded Derrida an opportunity he could seize. ‘The asymmetry of the sentence makes one wonder which half of the equation is subordinate,’ he said, then launched a monologue that concluded with the observation that ‘one of the most interesting features of phallogocentrism’ is that ‘you can’t have an animal as a friend.’ Question: ‘You said that women are excluded [from traditional concepts of friendship], yet Aristotle likens friendship to the mother’s desire to know her child.’ Answer: ‘Mothers are not necessarily women.’
I take it that this (by ‘Europe’s foremost philosopher and interdisciplinary scholar’, as the university newsletter described him) is the kind of thing with which, in Graff’s reshaped curriculum, we are invited to engage in debate.