Category: Institutions

Institutions

A former student got in touch to talk about “institutions”—which are important in Latour’s work, but rather “undertheorized” (as we used to say in the 1980s).  At least not much discussed in An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, even as he chides “baby boomers” (278) for their knee-jerk hostility to them.  The boomers “accuse” institutions “of being routinized, artificial, bureaucratic, repetitive, and soulless,” fatal “to the initiative, autonomy, enthusiasm, vivacity, inventivity, and naturalness of existence. . . . [T]here is life only on condition of getting out of institutions, even destroying them, or, short of that, getting as far away from them as possible in order to subsist on the periphery” (278).  He locates institutions in the mode of existence called Habit—and sees them as a source of continuity and, hence, subsistence.  To be hostile to institutions is to end up throwing away a focus on subsistence in order to pursue that phantom: substance. The hostility to habit partakes of the characteristic “iconoclasm” of the moderns, who keep thinking they can get behind appearances to reality, can pierce through the “Shows” of the world to the “thing itself.”  We need (Latour argues), rather,  to develop the healthy regard for habit we find in William James, recognizing its benefits, its ways of making us at home in the world.

So the moral for Latour is “that we should ‘learn to respect institutions.’  [Otherwise], it will be impossible to know, given that habit has so many enemies, whether you want to protect a value by instituting it or, on the contrary, whether you want to betray it, stifle it, break it down, ossify it.  Now we baby boomers have drained that bitter cup to the dregs.  Confronting the ruins of the institutions that we are beginning to bequeath to our descendants, am I the only one to feel the same embarrassment as asbestos manufacturers targeted by the criminal charges brought by workers suffering from lung cancer?  In the beginning, the struggle against institutions seemed to be risk-free; it was modernizing and liberating—and even fun; like asbestos, it had only good qualities.  But, like asbestos, alas, it also had disastrous consequences that no one had anticipated and that we have been far too slow to recognize” (278-79).

For all this, Latour has little to say about how we are to think about institutions, how we are to describe them and what they do (or don’t do).  Maybe he does elsewhere.  I will have to take a look.

In the meantime, here is what I wrote to my student as a first stab of thinking about what institutions are:

My latest blog post (thanks for reading, by the way) does a little Latour stuff that points toward institutions.  I think, in fact, that what you can glean from his Science in Action or Reassembling the Social is most likely the best bet.  In short, Latour is great in getting us to think about all “the players” that contribute to the production of something.  Of course, he is interested in both human and non-human “actants” (to use his term).  Institutions, then, are formal structures within which actants operate (establishing hierarchies, differential access to resources, lines of authority and of connection), but which also represent an effort to stabilize and enable the continued existence of networks that spring into existence and act in relation to some specific end.  Institutions, in other words, put a public face on, and identity to, what might otherwise be ephemeral relations formed in the heat of action.  The institution tries to enable repetition–the gathering of these actants in the next instance, the next attempt to produce something.  This formalization of the actant network has its dangers/downsides (sclerosis is always a threat), but also its upsides (establishing relationships and procedures, so that re-invention of the wheel is not always necessary, and garnering resources).  A continuing presence, an institution can also bridge the gap between one instance of action and the next.  Finally, institutions can accumulate and store authority and/or prestige.  They can become a name-brand, thus attracting resources and attention.

 

As I thought more about this, I found myself troubled by the thought that most of what I say about institutions could also be said of “organizations.”  Yet in ordinary language, we do distinguish between the two.  Congress is a political institution; the Democratic Party is a political organization.  Amazon, Amnesty International, the New England Patriots, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) are all organizations.  To my ear, at least, it would be odd to call any of them “institutions.”  The Catholic Church, the University of North Carolina, and the Supreme Court are institutions.  In common parlance, we can also say that “Harriet Jones is an institution in these parts,” but we would never call her an “organization.”

“Hollywood” is a collective noun that designates the film industry; the “studio system” refers to a particular way that industry was (is?) organized.  But I don’t think we would normally call Hollywood an institution or an organization.  It is a loose affiliation of various actors—sometimes interconnected enough for us to speak of “networks”—with (perhaps) habitual ways of doing its self-appointed tasks.  But somehow it doesn’t rise to the status of “institution.”

Yet I feel as if Major League Baseball is on the cusp of being an institution—and is certainly an organization.  Even as I feel that the National Football League is definitely an organization, but nowhere near being an institution.  So can I make any sense of these contradictory intuitions?

Here’s a try before I go to the dictionary.  An institution is the framework within which a variety of actants can practice (in any variety of ways, including cooperatively or competitively).  The institutions lays down protocols—canons for a specific action being counted as an instance of the “practice” that the institution shelters/enables/presides over.  The authority of the institution faces two ways: 1. Inwardly toward instances of the practice itself, judging the status and quality of those instances. And 2. Outwardly toward the world as it makes the case for the general benefit that practice can provide to non-practitioners.  [In short, I am stealing here Bruce Robbins’ understanding of professionals; their guild establishes and maintains “professional standards,” even as their guild must legitimate to a wider public the usefulness of “professional practices.”]

Within that institutional setting, there can be a wide variety in the ways its practices are put to use—and there can be widespread disagreement and contestation about substantive matters.  The institution provides “the rules of the game” and the certification of who gets to be “a player.”

And something, like Major League Baseball, becomes “an institution” when the it garners a widely acknowledged “authority” and respect in relation to its wider legitimating function.

An organization may establish a “brand” that is well-trusted, seen as reliable.  But it will not have the “authority” that an institution has.  Why?  Because an organization is put together to facilitate the more efficient accomplishment of a single purpose.  Everyone in the organization must get with the program; all of the members of the organization must contribute to its achieving its goal.  The organization is not a framework for multiple uncoordinated actions; just the opposite.  Its whole point is coordination, in making sure that actants work in sync, in tandem.  An organization is never, like an institution, “above the fray.”  It is never the enabler of the varieties of practice; instead, it harnesses energies toward a goal.

Hence, if the Supreme Court becomes the tool of one political faction, it loses its “authority” as the institution that enables political contestation, becoming instead just another piece of an organization.  So maybe I can say that organizations exist to produce something; but institutions exist to enable the production of things, but do not produce things directly themselves.

Major League Baseball allows for the playing of numerous games of baseball; it does not do the playing itself.  It is the integrity with which it plays that role, as guardian of the practice, that gains it the “authority” that leads us to think of it as an institution.  But if the single-minded organizational goal of making money comes to dominate, then Major League Baseball will only be an organization, not an institution.  Football seems much more directly commercial than baseball—and hence the National Football League is not an institution.  This may be pure sentimentality, but it also has to do with how differently the two professional sports are related to the history of their games, and to the ways in which football players are interchangeable parts and constricted to a communal project.  Baseball is much more individual, much less faceless (it takes a truly devoted fan to know the linemen on a football team.)

Anyway, I could be totally wrong about this baseball/football divide.  More important is to recognize that the issue is not commercial versus non-commercial.  Amnesty International is an organization because devoted to a specific goal.  It is working for something substantive, not providing a framework within which a practice can unfold in myriad, even unexpected, ways.  But Amnesty is not commercial.  So the distinction I am trying to probe is not about the presence or absence of a profit motive.

It turns out the dictionary is not much help.  Here’s my Random House dictionary on “institution”: 1. An organization or establishment devoted to the promotion of a particular object.

But # 4 might help us some: Sociology, a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage.

Followed by # 5: any established law, custom etc.  and #6: any familiar practice or object.

Whereas the definitions offered for “organization” are not very useful either.  #1 is “the action or process of organizing.”  #5 is “a body of persons organized for some end or work.”

I would say that the dictionary’s deficiencies indicate a general difficulty in describing collective action.  Organizations, quite obviously, act.  Things get produced and decisions get made that could never be done by a single person acting alone—and the thing produced and the decision made is not fully controlled by one of the actors (actants) in the process that yields that result.

When it comes to institutions it can seem even trickier.  If we are talking “habit” or “custom,” we can seem to be identifying a force that has no obvious origin.  It is “just our way of doing things,” even as that “way” does not remain completely impervious to change. But the mechanisms of change are hard to identify and even harder to manipulate.  We like to think we can tell an origin story about our political institutions—and we even have mechanisms for their being revised/amended/reformed etc.

But when it comes to relations between the sexes or between the races, the dead hand of the past, of cultural mores, proves incredibly resistant to direct intervention even as those relations do not remain immobile.  If we deem racism “an institution,” then it is like the Supreme Court in that it provides a framework for a whole set of practices, but it is unlike the Supreme Court in that there are no procedures for adjudication among those practices.  Racism as “an institution” is a product of various actions/practices in the past; but none of those actions/practices in itself had the power to establish racism.  We have what is truly a collective product here, one that is only “deliberate” in a very attenuated way.  No wonder conspiracy theories as so appealing; at least they identify agents powerful enough to serve as the originators or perpetuators of a particular state of affairs.

All of this is inconclusive enough.  The term “institution” clearly encompasses apples and oranges.  The more fruitful approach might be a version of Latour: consider particular instances of something you are tempted to call an “institution” and try to trace the actions that lead to its production.  Then, “institution” is the end product, not the starting place, of an inquiry.  And we don’t assume from the outset that one institution has much in common with another one.  An escape from essentialism into particularities.

Joseph North Three:  Sensibility, Community, Institution

Now we reach the point in my discussion of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) where I mostly agree with him.  I am simply going to take up some of his key terms and goals and inflect them somewhat differently.  I think what I have to say runs parallel to North, not ever much meeting him on his chosen ground, but not running athwart his formulations either.

Here’s three of North’s descriptions of his project.

The first comes from a footnote on Raymond Williams and features North’s “scholarship/criticism” divide.  “Of course, none of this is to say that Williams was not deeply committed to ‘practice’ in other fields of endeavor; I merely mean to observe that he understood his disciplinary work in scholarly terms, as cultural analysis, cultural history, and cultural theory, rather than understanding it in critical terms as the systematic cultivation of sensibility.  Naturally the two are not finally distinguishable, and any powerful work of scholarship moves readers to try on different ranges of sensibility, etc. etc. But the ‘practice’ of scholarship, conceived of as cultural analysis, is necessarily neither direct nor systematic in this respect” (pg. 233, fn. 18).

The second is notable for its raising the issue of institutions.  “I only want to add that the problem facing the discipline is not an entirely new one, for in a broad sense it is much the same problem that the critical revolution of the 1920s managed to solve: the problem of creating a true paradigm for criticism—the problem of how to build an institution that would cultivate new, deeper forms of subjectivity and collectivity in a rigorous and repeatable way” (126-27).

In the third passage, he faults the work of D. A. Miller and Eve Sedgwick for its “lack of any prospect of a true paradigm for criticism—the lack of any hope of putting together a paradigmatic way to use the literary directly to intervene in the social order” (173).  Two pages earlier, he describes what I think he means by “direct” intervention.  “My point is simply that it really does make a difference to the character of the work produced by an intellectual formation when those involved feel strongly their responsibility to the needs of a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy—a larger formation defined not simply by its ‘identity’ but by its character as a living movement—which is to say, really, a formation defined by its always limited but nevertheless real ability to define itself by determining, collectively, the trajectory of its own development” (171).

I can’t resist, of course, registering where I disagree with these statements. I have already made clear my skepticism that there is a rigorous or systematic way to cultivate a sensibility.  I am also astounded that North does not recognize feminist literary criticism of the period from 1975 to 1995 as a paradigmatic case of academic work tied “to a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy.”  And if Sedgwick’s relation to the gay liberation movement isn’t a similar instance, may the Lord help the rest of us.  And North’s repeated (as much a tic as his use of the term “rigorous”) use of the words “true” and “really” make him appear more Stalinist than I think he really is.  Does he really intend to shut down the pluralism of intellectual work in favor of the one true path?  Re-education camps for the critics so that they get with the program—and are taught the methods of the new systematic pedagogy.  Surely, one of the delights of the aesthetic sensibility is its anarchism, its playfulness, its imaginative ingenuity, excesses, and unruliness. I suspect that “systematic,” and “repeatable” and “direct” aesthetic education would prove counter-productive in many cases.  At least, I hope it would–with teachers and student both summoning enough gumption to rebel against the indoctrination.

Finally, I want to quibble with his description of “direct” intervention.  Work that stands in support of, proves useful to, “larger” social movements is not direct—at least not directly political.  Here’s Judith Butler in a 1988 essay offering a straightforward description of political acts.  “Clearly, there are political acts which are deliberate and instrumental actions of political organization, resistant collective interventions with the broad aim of instating a more just set of social and political relations” (“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Theater Journal  523).  That cultivating an aesthetic sensibility might play a role in encouraging someone to join that social movement is not the direct political intervention that the movement attempts through quite different means and actions than what the critic does in the classroom or in her written work.  To confuse the two does no one any good—especially if it lets the teacher/critic deem herself sufficiently political as she advances her academic career.  The teacher/critic’s contribution is valuable, but it also indirect.

Enough with the dissents. I completely agree with North that “sensibility” is the crucial concept for the “hearts and minds” side of politics.  Cultivating a leftist sensibility is necessary, although not sufficient, to creating the kind of society we leftists want to live in.  The caveats here are familiar.  There is no guaranteed path from an aesthetic sensibility to a leftist politics. [Let me also note that the practice of close reading is also not the only, or even the royal road, to acquiring an aesthetic sensibility.  Lots of people got there other ways, which casts doubt of the “systematic” and “rigorous” pedagogy, and on the fetishizing of close reading.] For many aesthetes (Nietzsche, Yeats, and Pound among them), the vulgarity and bad taste of the masses drives them to anti-democratic, autocratic visions of strong, masterful leaders of the herd.  For others (Wordsworth and Coleridge for example), reverence for genius promotes a kind of over-all piety that leads to a quietist respect for everything that is, investing tradition and the customary forms of life with a sacred aura it is impious to question or change.  (This is the aesthetic version—articulated by T. S. Eliot as well—of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.)

But the larger point—and now we are with David Hume and William James in contrast to Kant—is that our political ideas and principles (and our ethical ones as well) are the products of our sensibility.  It is the moral passions and our moral intuitions that generate our political commitments.  James (in the first lecture of Pragmatism) talks of “temperament”—and throughout his work (from The Principles of Psychology onwards) insists that our stated reasons for doing something are always secondary; there was the will to do something first, then the search for justifying reasons.  Indignation at the injustice of others (or of social arrangements) and shame at one’s own acts of selfishness are more secure grounds for conduct than a rationally derived categorical imperative.

James seems to think of temperament as innate, a fated from birth.  North’s point is that education—a sentimental education—can shape sensibility.  I agree.  My daughter was in college at George Washington University when Osama bin Laden was killed.  Her classmates rushed over to the White House (three blocks away) to celebrate when the news was heard.  She told my wife and me that she didn’t join the celebration.  It just felt wrong to her to dance in the streets about killing someone.  Her parents’ reaction was her Friends School education had just proved itself.

Sensibility is akin to taste.  The leftist today finds it distasteful, an offense to her sense of how things should be, to live in Trump’s America.  I will use my next post to describe the sensibility of the right in that America.  But for the left, there is outrage at the caging of immigrant children, and at the bigotry that extends to non-whites, women, non-Christians and beyond.  Fundamentally, it is the shame of living in such a needlessly cruel society, with its thousands of homeless and millions of uninsured.

I don’t know exactly how a specifically “aesthetic” sensibility lines up with this leftist sensibility.  And as I have said, there is certainly no sure path from one to the other.  But I am willing to believe (maybe because it is true at least for myself) that the aesthetic stands at odds with commercial culture, attending to values and experiences that are “discounted” (in every sense of that word) in the dominant culture.  Being placed at odds, in a spot where the taken-for-granteds of one’s society are made somewhat less self-evident, has its effect.  If what one has come to appreciate, even to love, is scorned by others, new modes of reckoning (again in every sense of the word), and new allegiances (structure of feeling) may beckon.

Here is where Hume is preferable to James.  Hume (Dewey and Mead follow Hume  here in a way the more individualistic James does not) portrays sensibility as shaped through our communal relations and as reinforced by those same relations.  In other words, even non-conformity is social.  It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible (akin to the impossibility of a “private language” in the Wittgenstein argument) to be a solitary “enemy of the people.”  There must be resources—from the tradition, from received works of art, criticism, and cultural analysis, from a cohort—on which one can draw to sustain the feeling that something is wrong in the dominant order.

Education, in other words, can play a major role in shaping sensibility—and it is the community the school offers is as crucial as the educational content.  Young people discover the courage of their convictions when they find others who feel the same way, who have the same inchoate intuitions that school (in both its formal and informal interactions) is helping them to articulate.  The encouragement of teachers (yes, you are on the right path; keep going; keep probing; keep questioning; trust your instincts) and of peers (those famous all-night bull sessions after our student finds her sympaticos).

Communities are, famously, ephemeral.  We can idealize them (as arguably Hannah Arendt does in her definition of “the political”—a definition that seems to exclude everything except the excited talk among equals from the political sphere).  Societies are corrupt, impersonal, hierarchical, mechanical, not face-to-face.  Communities are “known” (as Raymond Williams phrased it), informal and intimate.  A familiar narrative of “modernity” sees communities as overwhelmed by society, by the depredations of capitalism, war, and the ever-expanding state. (Tonnies)

This romanticism does not serve the left well.  Communities are not sustainable in the absence of institutions.  And they certainly cannot withstand the pressures of power, of the large forces of capitalism and the state, without institutional homes.  There must (quite literally) be places for the community to gather and resources for its maintenance.  Make no mistake about it: neo-liberalism has deliberately and methodically set out to destroy the institutions that have sustained the left (while building their own infrastructure—chambers of commerce, business lobbying groups, the infamous think tanks—that provide careers for the cadre of right-wing hacks).  Unions, of course, first and foremost.  When did we last have a union leader who was recognized as a spokesperson for America’s workers?  But there has also been the absorption of the “associations” that Tocqueville famously saw as the hallmark of American democracy into the services of the state.  Outsourced welfare functions are now the responsibility of clinics first created by the feminist and gay liberation movements to serve the needs of their communities.  Financial stability has been secured at the price of being experienced as embedded members of the community; now those organizations are purveyors of  services begrudgingly offered by a bureaucratic state that always put obstacles in the way of accessing those benefits.

North is right to see that the neoliberal attack on institutions extends to the university.  The aesthetic sensibility (since at least 1960) has been bunkered in the university, having failed to sustain the few other institutional structures (little magazines, the literary reviews it inherited from the 19th century) that existed in the early 20th century.  Reading groups are well and good (they are thriving and I hardly want to belittle them), but have no institutional weight or home.  Humanities departments are about it, except for the arts scene (again, mostly woefully under-institutionalized) in some major cities.

So there is every reason to fight hard to keep the humanities as an integral part of the university.  I personally don’t think taking the disciplinary route is the way to fight this fight—but maybe I am wrong.  Maybe only claims to disciplinary specificity and expertise can gain us a spot.

More crucially, I think North is absolutely right to believe that our efforts as critics are doomed to political ineffectiveness if not tied to vibrant social movements.

[For the record, here is where I think North’s criticism/scholarship divide really doesn’t work.  Efforts along both lines can prove supportive or not to social movements.  It is the content, not the form, of the work that matters.  And I also think work that is apolitical is perfectly OK.  It is tyrannical—a mirror image of the absurd regimes of “productivity” that afflict both capitalism and the research university—to insist that everything one does contribute to the political cause.  Life is made worth living, in many instances, by things that are unproductive, are useless.]

The problem of the contemporary left is, precisely, the absence of such social movements.  The civil rights movement had the black churches, and then the proliferation of organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, along with the venerable NAACP, and A. Philip Randolph’s labor organization.  It sustained itself over a very long time.  The feminist movement had its clinics, and NOW.  The anti-war movement had A. J. Muste and David Dellinger, long-time veterans of peace groups.  The Democratic Party is obviously no good unless (except when) it is pushed by groups formed outside the party, groups that act on their own without taking instructions from the party. The Bernie Sanders insurrection will only reshape the Democratic Party when it establishes itself as an independent power outside the party–with which the party then needs to come to terms.

The trouble with Black Lives Matter, ME Too, and Occupy is that they all have resisted or failed (I don’t know which one) to establish any kind of institutional base.  Each of these movements has identified a mass of people who share certain experiences and a certain sensibility.  They have, in other words, called into presence (albeit mostly virtually—except for Occupy) a community.  That discovery of other like souls is comforting, reassuring, even empowering.  I am not alone.  But to be politically effective, these movements need legs.  They need to be sustained, in it for the long haul.  And that requires institutions: money, functionaries, offices, continuing pressure at the sites deemed appropriate (for strategic reasons) for intervention.

In short (and now I am the one who is going to sound like a thirties Marxist), the left needs to make the long march through the institutions—a march begun by creating some institutions of its own on the outside to prepare it for the infiltration of the institutions on the inside.  That’s what the right has been doing for the past forty years.  While the left was marching in the street on the weekends with their friends, the right was getting elected to school boards.  Protest marches feel great, but are ephemeral, easily ignored.  Our society’s shift rightwards has come through a million incremental changes wrought on the ground by somebody in an office somewhere, by right wing hacks and business lobbyists writing legislation, by regulators letting oversight lapse, by prosecutors and courts looking the other way at white collar and corporate crime. During the Obama years, the left paid almost no attention to state-level races, ceding those legislatures to the right almost by default–with grievous consequences (not the least of which is a weak bench, unable to provide any potential national candidates between the ages of 45 and 65).

We need leftist social movements that pay attention to the minutiae, that are not addicted to the large dramatic gesture, that don’t engage in the magical thinking that a piece of legislation or a court decision solves a problem once and for all.  It’s the implementation, the daily practices of state, corporate, educational, regulatory institutions (as Foucault should have taught us) where change takes place, in often silent and difficult to perceive ways.  That’s the room where it happens—and the left has all too often failed to even try to get into the room.

Joseph North (One)

One of the oddities of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) is that it practices what it preaches against.  North believes that the historicist turn of the 1980s was a mistake, yet his own “history” is very precisely historicist: he aims to tie that “turn” in literary criticism to a larger narrative about neo-liberalism.

In fact, North subscribes to a fairly “vulgar,” fairly simplistic version of social determinism.  His periodization of literary criticism offers us “an early period between the wars in which the possibility of something like a break with liberalism, and a genuine move to radicalism, is mooted and then disarmed,” followed by “a period of relative continuity through the mid-century, with the two paradigms of ‘criticism’ and ‘scholarship’ both serving real superstructural functions within Keynesianism.”  And, finally, when the “Keynesian period enters into a crisis in the 1970s . . . we see the establishment of a new era: the unprecedentedly complete dominance of the ‘scholar’ model in the form of the historicist/contextualist paradigm.”  North concludes this quick survey of the “base” determinants of literary critical practice with a rhetorical question:  “If this congruence comes as something of a surprise, it is also quite unsurprising: what would one expect to find except that the history of the discipline marches more or less in step with the underlying transformations of the social order?” (17).

Perhaps I missed something, but I really didn’t catch where North made his assertions about the two periods past the 1930s stick.  How do both the “critical” and “scholarly” paradigms serve Keynesianism?  I can see where the growth of state-funded higher education after World War II is a feature of Keynesianism.  But surely the emerging model (in the 50s and 60s) of the “research university,” has as much, if not more, to do with the Cold War than with Keynesian economic policy.

But when it gets down to specifics about different paradigms of practice within literary criticism, I fail to see the connection.  Yes, literary criticism got dragged into a “production” model (publish or perish) that fits it rather poorly, but why or how did different types of production, so long as they found their way into print, “count” until the more intense professionalization of the 1970s, when “peer-reviewed” became the only coin of the realm?  The new emphasis on “scholarship” (about which North is absolutely right) was central to that professionalization—and does seem directly connected to the end of the post-war economic expansion.  But that doesn’t explain why “professionalization” should take an historicist form, just as I am still puzzled as to how both forms—critical and scholarly—“serve” Keynesian needs prior to 1970.

However, my main goal in this post is not to try to parse out the base/superstructure relationship that North appears committed to.  I have another object in view: why does he avoid the fairly obvious question of how his own position (one he sees as foreshadowed, seen in a glass darkly, by Isobel Armstrong among others) reflects (is determined by?) our own historical moment?  What has changed in the base to make this questioning of the historicist paradigm possible now?  North goes idealistic at this point, discussing “intimations” that appear driven by dissatisfactions felt by particular practitioners.  The social order drops out of the picture.

Let’s go back to fundamentals.  I am tempted to paraphrase Ruskin: for every hundred people who talk of capitalism, one actually understands it.  I am guided by the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, in this case his short 1979 book The Rise of the New Class and the Future of the Intellectuals (Oxford UP), a book that has been a touchstone for me ever since I read it in the early 1980s.  Gouldner offers this definition of capital: anything that can command an income in the mixed market/state economy in which we in the West (at least) live.  Deceptively simple, but incredibly useful as a heuristic.  Money that you spend to buy food you then eat is not capital; that money does not bring a financial return.  It does bring a material return, but not a financial one.  Money that you (as a food distributer) spend to buy food that you will then sell to supermarkets is capital.  And the food you sell becomes a commodity—while the food you eat is not a commodity.  Capital often passes through the commodity form in order to garner its financial return.

But keep your eye on “what commands an income.”  For Marx, of course, the wage earner only has her “labor power” to secure an income.  And labor power is cheap because there is so much of it available.  So there is a big incentive for those who only have their labor power to discover a way to make it more scarce.  Enter the professions.  The professional relies on selling the fact that she possesses an expertise that others lack.  That expertise is her “value added.”  It justifies the larger income that she secures for herself.

Literary critics became English professors in the post-war expansion of the research university.  We can take William Empson and Kenneth Burke as examples of the pre-1950s literary critic, living by their wits, and writing in a dizzying array of modes (poetry, commissioned “reports,” reviews, books, polemics).  But the research university gave critics “a local habitat [the university] and a name” [English professors] and, “like the dyer’s hand, their nature was subdued.”  The steady progress toward professionalization was begun, with a huge leap forward when the “job market” tightened in the 1970s.

So what’s new in the 2010s?  The “discipline” itself is under fire.  “English,” as Gerald Graff and Peter Elbow both marveled years ago, was long the most required school subject, from kindergarten through the second year of college.  Its place in our educational institutions appeared secure, unassailable.  There would always be a need to English teachers.  That assumed truth no longer holds.  Internally, interdisciplinarity, writing across the curriculum, and other innovations threatened the hegemony of the discipline.  Externally, the right wing’s concerted attack on an ideologically suspect set of “tenured radicals” along with a more general discounting (even elimination) of value assigned to being “cultured” meant the “requirement” of English was questioned.

North describes this shift in these terms:  “if the last three decades have taught literary studies anything about its relationship to the capitalist state, it is that the capitalist state does not want us around.  Under a Keynesian funding regime, it was possible to think that literary study was being supported because it served an important legitimating role in the maintenance of liberal capitalist institutions. . . . the dominant forms of legitimation are now elsewhere” (85).  True enough, although I would still like to see how that “legitimating role” worked prior to 1970; I would think institutional inertia rather than some effective or needed legitimating role was the most important factor.

In that context, the upsurge in the past five years (as the effects of 2008 on the landscape of higher education registered) of defenses of “the” discipline makes sense.  North—with his constant refrain of “rigor” and “method”—is working overtime to claim a distinctive identity for the discipline (accept no pale or inferior imitations!).  This man has a used discipline to sell you. (It is unclear, to say the least, how a return to “criticism,” only this time with rigor, improves our standing in the eyes of the contemporary “capitalist state.”  Why should they want North’s re-formed discipline  around anymore than the current version?)

North appears  blind to the fact that a discipline is a commodity within the institution that is higher education.  The commodity he has to sell has lost significant amounts of value over the past ten years within the institution, for reasons both external and internal.  A market correction?  Perhaps—but only perhaps because (as with all stock markets) we have no place to stand if we are trying to discover the “true” value of the commodity in question.

So what is North’s case that we should value the discipline of literary criticism more highly? He doesn’t address the external factors at all, but resets the internal case by basing the distinctiveness of literary criticism on fairly traditional grounds: it has a distinct method (“Close reading”) and a distinct object (“rich” literary and aesthetic texts).  To wit:  “what [do] we really mean by ‘close reading’ beyond paying attention to small units of any kind of text.  Our questions must then be of the order: what range of capabilities and sensitivities is the reading practice being used to cultivate?  What kinds of texts are most suited to cultivating those ranges? Putting the issue naively, it seems to me that the method of close reading cannot serve as a justification for disciplinary literary study until the discipline is able to show that there is something about literary texts that make them especially rewarding training grounds for the kinds of aptitudes the discipline is claiming to train.  Here again the rejected category of the aesthetic proves indispensable, for of course literary and other aesthetic texts are particularly rich training grounds for all sorts of capabilities and sensitivities: aesthetic capabilities”( 108-9; italics in original).

I will have more to say about “the method of close reading” in my next post.  For now, I just want to point out that it is absurd to think “close reading” is confined to literary studies–and North shows himself aware of that fact as he retreats fairly quickly from the “method” to the “objects” (texts).  Just about any practitioner in any field to whom the details matter is a close reader.  When my son became an archaeology major, my first thought was: “that will come to an end when he encounters pottery shards.” Sure enough, he had a brilliant professor who lived and breathed pottery shards—and who, even better yet, could make them talk.  My son realized he wasn’t enthralled enough with pottery shards to give them that kind of attention—and decided not to go to grad school.  Instead, my son realized that where he cared about details to that extent, where no fine point was too trivial to be ignored, was the theater—and thus he became an actor and a director.  To someone who finds a particular field meaningful, all the details speak.  Ask any lawyer, lab scientist, or gardener.  They are all close readers.

This argument I have just made suggests, as a corollary, that all phenomenon are “rich” to those inspired by them.  Great teachers are, among other things, those who can transmit that enthusiasm, that deep attentive interest, to others.  If training in attention to detail is what literary studies does, it has no corner on that market.  Immersion in just about any discipline will have similar effects.  And there is no reason to believe the literary critics’ objects are “richer” than the archaeologists’ pottery shards.

In short, if we go the “competencies” route, then it will be difficult to make the case that literary studies is a privileged route to close attention to detail—or even to that other chestnut, “critical thinking.” (To North’s credit, he doesn’t play the critical thinking card.)  Most disciplines are self-reflective; they engage in their own version of what John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium,” moving back and forth between received paradigms of analysis and their encounter with the objects of their study.

North is not, in fact, very invested in “saving” literary studies by arguing they belong in the university because they impart a certain set of skills or competencies that can’t be transmitted otherwise.  Instead, he places almost all his chips on the “aesthetic.”  What literary studies does, unlike all the rest, is initiate the student into “all sorts of capabilities and sensitivities” that can be categorized as “aesthetic capabilities.”

Now we are down to brass tacks.  What we need to know is what distinguishes “aesthetic capabilities” from other kinds of capabilities?  And we need to know why we should value those aesthetic capabilities?   On the first score, North has shockingly little to say—and he apologizes for this failure.  “I ought perhaps to read into the record, at points like this, how very merely gestural these gestures [toward the nature of the aesthetic] have been; the real task of developing claims of this sort is of course philosophical and methodological rather than historical, and thus has seemed to me to belong to a different book” (109; italics in original).

Which leaves us with his claims about what the aesthetic is good for.  Why should we value an aesthetic sensibility?  The short answer is that this sensibility gives us a place to stand in opposition to commercial culture.  He wants to place literary criticism at the service of radical politics—and heaps scorn throughout on liberals, neo-liberals, and misguided soi-disant radicals (i.e. the historicist critics who thought they were striking a blow against the empire).  I want to dive into this whole vein in his book in subsequent posts.  Readers of this blog will know I am deeply sympathetic to the focus on “sensibility” and North helps me think again about what appeals to (and the training of) sensibilities could entail.

But for now I will end with registering a certain amazement, or maybe it is just a perplexity.  How will it serve the discipline’s tenuous place in the contemporary university to announce that its value lies in the fact that it comes to bury you?  Usually rebels prefer to work in a more clandestine manner.  Which is to ask (more pointedly): how does assuming rebellious stances, in an endless game in which each player tries to position himself to the left of all the other players, bring palpable rewards within the discipline even as it endangers the position of the discipline in the larger struggle for resources, students, and respect within the contemporary university? That’s a contradiction whose relation to the dominant neo-liberal order is beyond my abilities to parse.

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Violence and the Law

Holmes’s war experiences left him with the view that it all boils down to force, to the imposition of death.  “Holmes had little enthusiasm for the idea that human beings possessed any rights by virtue of being human.  Holmes always liked to provoke friends who he thought were being sentimentally idealistic by saying, ‘all society rests on the deaths of men,” and frequently asserted that a ‘right’ was nothing more than ‘those things a given crowd will fight for—which vary from religion to the price of a glass of beer’” (369-70 in Budiansky’s biography of Holmes).

Holmes’ rejection of any “natural” theory of rights always returned to this assertion about death:

The jurists who believe in natural law seem to me to be in that naïve state of

mind that accepts what has been familiar and accepted by them and their

neighbors as something that must be accepted by all men everywhere.  The

most fundamental of the supposed preexisting rights—the right to life—is

sacrificed without a scruple not only in war, but whenever the interest of

society, that is, of the predominant power in the community, is thought to

demand it (376).

 

And he understood the law entirely through its direct relation to force.  “The law, as Holmes never tired of pointing out, is at its foundation ‘a statement of the circumstances in which the public force will be brought to bear upon men through the courts’” (435).  “Holmes’s point was that the law is what the law does; it is not a theoretical collection of axioms and moral principles, but a practical statement of where public force will be brought to bear, and that could only be derived from an examination of it in action” (244).  “[H]e would come to insist as a cornerstone of his legal philosophy that law is fundamentally a statement of society’s willingness to use force—‘every law means I will kill sooner than not have my way,’ as he put it[;] . . . he did not want the men who threw ideas around ever again to escape responsibility for where those ideas led.  It was the same reason he lost the enthusiastic belief he once has in the cause of women’s suffrage: political decision had better come from those who do the killing” (131).

Temperamentally, this is easy enough to characterize.  The manly facing up to harsh facts, to an unsentimental view of humans and their social institutions, and a disgust with all sentimental claptrap.

Philosophically, it is less easy to describe.  Where there is power there must be force is clear enough.  But what Holmes seems to miss is that the law often serves as an attempt to restrict force.  Rights (in some instances) are legal statements about instances where the use of force is illegitimate.  Certainly (as Madison was already well aware and as countless commentators have noted since) there is something paradoxical about the state articulating limitations on its own powers.

Who is going to enforce those limitations?  The answer is the courts.  And the courts do not have an army.  That’s what the rule of law is about: the attempt to establish modus vivendi that are respected absent the direct application of force.  Holmes, of course, is arguing that the court’s decision will not be obeyed unless there is the implied (maybe not even implied, but fully explicit) use of state power to enforce that decision.  But his position, like all reductionisms, does not do justice to the complexities of human behavior and psychology.  The Loving decision of 1967, like earlier decisions on child labor laws, led to significant changes in everyday social practice that came into existence with little fanfare.  There are cases where the desire to live within the law is enough; there is an investment in living in a lawful society.  Its benefits are clear enough that its unpleasant consequences (in relation to my own beliefs and preferences) are a price I am willing to pay in order to enjoy those benefits.  Of course, there are also instances where force needs to be applied—as with the widespread flouting of the Brown decision.  My point is simply that the law’s relationship to force is more complex than Holmes allows.  The law is an alternative to violence in many instances, not its direct expression.

My position fits with my notion of the Constitution as an idealistic document, of a statement of the just society we wish to be.  The law is not, as Holmes would argue, completely divorced from questions of morality and justice (more claptrap!).  That relation is complex and often frustrating, but it does no good (either theoretically or practically) to just cut the tie in the name of clear-sighted realism.  Social institutions exist, in part, to protect citizens from force.  And, yes, that can mean in some instances that state force must be deployed in order to fend off other forces.  But it also means in some instances that the institutions serve to prevent any deployment of force at all.  The law affords, when it works, an escape from force, from the unpredictable, uncontrollable and deeply non-useful side effects of most uses of force.

In short, the manly man creates (at least as much as he discovers) the harsh world of struggle he insists is our basic lot.  True, Holmes did not create the war he marched off to at the age of twenty.  He experienced that war as forced upon him.  But he never got quite clear about who was responsible.  He was inclined to blame the abolitionists and their moral fervor, their uncompromising and intolerant absolutism.  He certainly had no patience for their self-righteous moralizing.  Still, blaming them had some obvious flaws, so he ended up converting the idea of struggle into a metaphysical assertion.  He, like Dewey and James, but in a different, more Herbert Spencer-like register, became a Darwinian, focused on the struggle for existence.  But he yoked Darwin to Hobbes; it is not the best adaptation to environmental conditions that assures survival, but the best application of force.  Of course, if the environmental condition is the war of all against all, then the adepts at violence will be the ones who survive.

All of this goes along with contempt for the losers in the battle.  Holmes had no patience with socialists or with proponents of racial justice.  The unwashed were driven by envy; “no rearrangement of property could address the real sources of social discontent” (396), those sources being the envy of the successful by the unsuccessful.  It’s a struggle; just get on with it and quit the whining—or expecting anyone to offer you a helping hand.  Holmes did accept that the law should level the field of struggle; he was (somewhat contradictorily) committed to the notion of a “fair” fight.  Where this ideal of “fairness” was to come from is never clear in his thought—or his legal opinions.  (He was, in fact, very wary of the broad use of the 14th Amendment’s language about “due process” and “equal protection of the laws.”  The broad use of the 14th amendment was being pioneered by Louis Brandeis in Holmes’ later year on the Supreme Court.)  Budiansky is clear that Holmes is by no stretch of the term a “liberal.”

Holmes’s famous dissents from the more conservative decisions of the pre-New Deal Court are motivated by his ideal of fairness—and (connecting to earlier posts about what liberalism even means) that ideal is used against decisions that in American usage are understood as “conservative” even though those conservative decisions were based on the “liberal” laissez-faire idea that the state cannot interfere in business practices.  Holmes’s scathing dissents from the court’s overturning of child labor laws enacted by the states are usually argued on the grounds of consistency.  He says that state governments already regulate commerce (for example, of alcohol), so it is absurd to say they can’t regulate other aspects of commercial activities.

Regulation, it would seem, is always about competing interests.  Since it is inevitable that there will be competing interests, society (through its regulatory laws) is best served by establishing a framework for the balancing of those interests.  Regulation is neither full permission nor full prohibition.  It strives to set conditions for a practice, conditions that take the various interests involved into account.  But Holmes never really worked out a theoretical account of regulation—another place where his reductionism fails him.  Yes, regulations must be enforced, but they are also always a compromise meant to mitigate the need to resort to force–and to prevent anyone from having a full, free hand in the social field characterized by a plurality of different interests and aims.