Category: Teachers

Cakes, Ale, and Mellon (2)

My post on the Mellon Foundation’s announcement that it would orient all its future funding decisions toward projects that advance social justice generated a conversation on Facebook.  You can read the give-and-take by going to my FaceBook page.

Here I want to make my position clear (which is hard because I have mixed feelings on the topic)—and elaborate on my rationale for those feelings.

Let me state my opinion at the outset—and then the rest of the post tries to explain that opinion.  Mellon has been the biggest foundation funder (by orders of magnitude) of work in the arts and humanities for many years now.  It was especially important because it funded institutions—museums, theaters, dance companies, learned societies, universities, small presses and the like—as well as individuals.  And (this is my big point) is was one of very few places where people in the arts and humanities did not have to justify their work by reasons external to the work itself.  You certainly had to convince Mellon that the work you were doing was of excellent quality and make a case that it was deemed significant and superb in the relevant field, but you didn’t have to claim external benefits.

Why is that important?  Because the arts and humanities cannot exist in a market society unsubsidized.  The major source of subsidy is the educational system, from kindergarten through to universities.  95% (to pick a plausible number out of thin air) of artists and humanists will make the majority of their income from teaching.  And that means the arts and humanities are continually burdened with making the case that they are pedagogically useful.  The insistence that that case be made—accompanied by an increasing skepticism about that case—is familiar to anyone who works in these fields. So Jessica Berman is absolutely right that we need to be adept at making that case since we will be called on—repeatedly—to make it.

But that need to make the case means the arts and humanities are continually and increasingly on the defensive, trapped within a game they cannot win but must play.  Thus the endless shouting into the wind about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  I am not saying those arguments are untrue.  I am simply saying they never convince the people who demand that we make those arguments even though they have closed their minds to them long ago.  It’s a pointless, frustrating, undermining game.  What a relief it was to not have to play it to secure support from Mellon.

Now let me tell you a true story.  I taught in the Humanities Department of the Eastman School of Music for eight year.  My students were all aspiring musicians.  Because I am deeply committed to the notion of an informed citizenry, my classes there were usually designed to give students an understanding of the state of these United States.  At the end of one semester, a promising young pianist came to tell me he was going to abandon music because the world was in too bad a shape for him to continue in good conscience.  I hope that you would in a similar circumstance be as horrified as I was.

That was not what I meant at all, I hastened to tell him.  I want you to be an informed democratic citizen, but I never intended to make you think you should give up trying to become a concert pianist.  You have an enormous talent and the world needs great pianists.  Your first responsibility to yourself and to the world is the nurturing of your talent.

Here comes the hard part.  I don’t think Beethoven and golf are significantly different as human endeavors.  Both are difficult, intricate, capable of being endlessly fascinating.  To become a master of either you need to be obsessed to the point of being a bit crazy, certainly to the point of neglecting much else that most of us think part and parcel of a well-rounded life.  Both deliver something to the practitioner (discipline, interest, satisfaction/frustration) and to those who enjoy watching/listening to adept practitioners (fandom, pleasure, the joy of watching something very difficult being done superbly well).  I don’t really see (despite the somersaults we go through—and it is always somersaults if Adorno is our guide) that claims about why Beethoven should be in the school curriculum but not golf hold water.  If it’s complexity and mental agility and an ability to pay close attention that we are after, golf could do the trick just as well.

This last point is driven home (admittedly to my despair) by the fact that sports are a much larger presence in our schools than the arts and humanities.  Certainly in terms of money spent, sports (at least from ninth grade on) garner much larger budgets.  And when (as is seldom the case, but not never) sports have to justify their presence in the curriculum, they offer reasons that echo the ones trotted out to justify the liberal arts.  Reasons about mental discipline, learning to work with others etc. (Side note: isn’t it wonderful that Stanford has dropped eleven sports instead of cutting the music department?  Let’s hope other universities follow their lead.)

What about social justice?  I hate to think of the somersaults that are going to be required to demonstrate that work on Beethoven will contribute to social justice.  (As I said in my first post, I predict the route taken will be to make Beethoven more available to audiences traditionally unexposed to him.)  Some authors (Dickens, Carolyn Forché) are going to be much easier to link to a social justice agenda than others (Nabokov, Jorie Graham).

Even with the more obviously politically relevant authors, I think the rationale is often a subterfuge.  I think of all the work in the past thirty years about Melville’s relationship to slavery.  Solid work—but driven, I think, primarily by an interest in Melville not by an interest in slavery.  Melville was not an important figure in abolitionist circles; if you are really interested in the history of slavery in the US, of attitudes toward it, and its practices, Melville is way down the list of places you would go.  He only acquired any significance long after slavery was abolished, and our investment in him now is disciplinary (having to do with the canon) and aesthetic (in the sense that we think him a superb novelist).  Yes, we want to know about his reactions to slavery—but not because they tell us all that much about slavery and abolition efforts, but because they tell us about Melville who we think is significant enough as an artist that knowing more about him is worthwhile.  What drives the scholarship is not the advancement of social justice, but the advancement of our knowledge of Melville.

I know I am going to be misunderstood on this point.  So let me state it in different words.  Literary studies bestows authority on certain figures; it has a canon.  Efforts to break open that canon—and to examine the processes that go into its formation—are (I think) directly political.  But such efforts have been modestly successful.  The undergraduate curriculum, even for majors, remains mostly canonical.  And scholarship, while certainly more historicist over the past forty years, still tends to be anchored by one or two “major” figures even as it explores less honored (or taught) writers.  It is the authority attached to those major figures that still matters greatly—with its assumption that 1) learning more about those writers is a self-justifying scholarly motive in the discipline, and 2) that what those major figures thought and did is significant because of who they are. (The kind of circular reasoning about significance that drove Barbara Herrnstein Smith crazy in her attack on aesthetics, Contingencies of Value.)

To state for about the millionth time in my lifetime, my basic take on this relationship between art/scholarship and politics.  I just don’t buy that writing about social class in Dickens is political, and certainly don’t see it as an advancement of social justice.  Political work engages in changing institutions, in working on facts on the ground.  Scholarly work can change political opinions, just as Dickens’ novels can, but we have a very attenuated sense of the political if we think that our job is done when we teach Bleak House and write an essay about its views of social responsibility.  If, in fact, our reason for being in the classroom and doing our scholarship is political, then we are acting in bad faith.  If you really take politics as your primary motive in life, then making art or writing literary criticism is not what you should be doing.

I don’t think we advance social justice one iota if we confuse direct political action with the indirect attention to political questions that can occur in our classrooms and in our scholarship.  So my fear is that Mellon’s insistence that we tie our work to social justice will just abet this confusion of the direct with the indirect.  It is hard enough to be honest about our motives for what we devote our time and energy to.  And it is equally hard to be realistic about what our work can and cannot accomplish.  I think Mellon’s new orientation will encourage comforting lies we already too often are tempted to tell ourselves.

To be blunt: I hate the gestural politics on display at the Whitney and in the halls of the MLA.  It’s cheap in the sense that it costs its practitioner nothing and seems mostly directed at garnering the approval of his peers.  There are, of course, notable exceptions—Banksy, James Baldwin, and Edward Said come to mind immediately—so I need to be careful not to claim that it is impossible for art and scholarship to be political.  But it is damn difficult.

If our work as artists and teachers is not political, what is it?  I have backed myself into a corner here, pushing me toward an answer I would have scorned most of my (misdirected? misunderstood?) career. (In short, I was as committed, maybe even more so, to literary studies’ efforts to be political–and thus avoided saying, to myself or others, what I was actually practicing everyday as a teacher.) Cultivation of a sensibility of open-ness and appreciation.

Another story to indicate what I mean.  Some years back I discovered that all the students in a class I was teaching had never seen “Casablanca.”  My deepest commitments were brought home to me.  I didn’t deeply care if they never read Pope’s “Epistle to Man,” but to never see “Casablanca” would be to go to the grave without having passed through life.  My goal as a teacher was to open eyes to the richness of the word and the life it was possible to live in that world. To move my students toward the “quickened consciousness” Pater extolled. That goal did mean I wanted them to see how cruel, how unequal, how unjust the contemporary world is, but bringing that point home was part of the larger project of their seeing “life” and “the world” in all its many-sided splendor and squalor.  And it is in the arts that that splendor and squalor are most fully on display.

This last point brings me back to cakes and ale.  William James was interested in what he called “moral holidays.”  He did not mean the term pejoratively.  He knew that everyone of us grants ourselves such holidays.  So how do we justify them?  Peter Singer is the utilitarian philosopher who makes the absolutely stringent case against such holidays.  There is no way, Singer argues, to justify spending $150 to see “Hamilton” when that same sum, given to Oxfam, can feed 40 people.  No cakes and ale without an obligatory side dish of guilt.

Singer’s challenge returns us to my Eastman student’s crisis of conscience about playing the piano.  We can do somersaults to justify our cakes an ale. Even when admitting they are no good for the world or even to ourselves (sugar and alcohol?), we will talk about psychological well-being, letting off steam, all work and no play, etc. etc.  Because, of course, we all do take moral holidays.

My utopia is a world where we are relieved of the felt necessity to justify the holidays.  They are just good in and of themselves.  (Of course, traditional aesthetics keeps returning to this issue of intrinsic value again and again.)  There is nothing wrong about pleasure, about things that fascinate us by their intricacy and difficulty (we can imagine the “holidays whisperer” crooning in our ear.)

Hannah Arendt, with her obsession with amor mundi (love of the world), approached these issues in a somewhat different way.  She talks about the “freedom from politics” as among the freedoms to be protected and cherished.  One hallmark of totalitarianism is that everything becomes political; nothing gets to escape signifying one’s political allegiances, and one is either applauded or persecuted for every single taste or action. We are in a bad way when wearing a mask during a pandemic becomes politicized.  Zones of the non-political are liberating in the way that “moral holidays” are.

Just think of how dreary a world without music, without novels, without holidays would be. That world would certainly be hard to love. That’s all the justification we need.  More importantly, it is all the justification we are going to get.  All the other rationales are threadbare, barely plausible.

Mellon used to be a place where you didn’t have to do lip service by trotting out those all too familiar rationalizations.  Apparently no more.


I will be 67 in July.  Most college professors (at least on my campus and among the ones I know elsewhere) do not retire that young.  Seriously thinking about retirement at 70—and often taking a year or two past that to pull the trigger—seems the norm.

I make a very good salary and have a research fund that pays for books and travel to conferences.  My students—god bless their cheerful hearts and inquiring minds—still seem to buy what I have to offer, even though I feel embarrassingly ancient as I stand before them.  I can avoid almost all the tedious committee work in my department and around the university because I am not a “player” anymore.  I cannot avoid the increasingly onerous paperwork, the endless forms and surveys required of us.

So why retire?  My job is not terribly difficult, and often very rewarding.  I still love the students (without reservation)—and my colleagues (in suitable doses).

For starters, I am tired.  I don’t work anywhere near as hard as I did fifteen, even ten, years ago.  I feel like I was a .290 lifetime hitter, with a few peak years at .310, and now I am batting .230.  It’s time to hang up my spikes, even though the club would keep me on indefinitely as a veteran presence.  He used to be something, so we tolerate him hanging around.  Giving less than my best feels cheapening, even fraudulent.  Better to walk away.

The tiredness manifests itself in various ways.  In the past, I was constantly changing the courses I taught, the books I had students read.  In the past five years, I have found myself stumped as to what to teach—and have resorted to recycling old standards.

When I had a year at the National Humanities Center two years back, I discovered that I didn’t want to write scholarly prose anymore.  I simply wasn’t going to do the homework necessary.  As any reader of this blog knows, it is hardly that I lack a continuing interest in intellectual questions.  But I am no longer willing to make myself acquainted with the vast literature—some of it awfully good—out there on any given topic.  I want to pursue my own lines of thought through writing, but I don’t want to bother to engage with the ongoing scholarly dialogue on my chosen interests.  In short, my scholarly career was obviously at an end—and it felt fraudulent to continue to draw a salary while not doing that part of my job.

So much for all the negative reasons.  Luckily, there are also positive ones.  The Covid-19 shutdown has made those all the more obvious.  Time is not hanging heavy on my hands—or on Jane’s.  Even isolated from all our friends, the days aren’t long enough to do every thing we want to do.  I am reading, writing, exercising, listening to music, tending to the daily chores of life; the need to finish out the semester on Zoom only distracts from all the things I want to be doing.

When I look back at my career as a professor, and at the life that Jane and I lived/created over the past thirty-plus years, I am astounded at how much we did.  I can’t imagine how we did it.  I want to say that the books wrote themselves; I certainly don’t see how it was possible, amidst everything else, to have put in the time and effort necessary to write them.  It’s as if someone else did it—or as if I wasn’t present to my own life.

That’s the overwhelming feeling—no regrets at all, but a sense of having missed my own life.  Was I even there?  Getting through each day, with its piled up responsibilities and commitments, was the priority.  There was no larger plan, no overall strategy.  Just survival, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with each day and its demands.

I loved every minute of being a parent—and am blessed with an ongoing good relationship to Kiernan and Siobhan (in such sharp contrast to my relationship to my parents).  But it went by too fast—and they (I know) felt slighted at times in favor of all the other things I was also doing during those years.

That’s no way to live (really!).  The virus shutdown has slowed Jane and me down—and it’s wonderful.  We still have plenty to do, still have eyes too big for our stomachs.  But all the sense of urgency is gone.  We do the things we do out of pleasure, with all the pressure taken off. If something does not get done, so be it.  It’s glorious.  We should have retired years ago.  The work world is crazy and crazy-making, with its absurd norms of productivity and ritualized scenes of public humiliation called “evaluation” (annual reports, promotion and tenure, and all the rest).

I will admit to a fundamental selfishness as well.  A sense that it’s not my responsibility any more.  I fought the good fight while employed—and lost most of my fights (for interdisciplinary curricula, for support of collaborative work, for expanded notions of what should “count” for promotion, for UNC to face up to its racist past and to the unspeakable Republicans who are ruining our state).  Now I feel OK just washing my hands of it all.

I am going to spend my time in the ways I wish.  Others will have to carry on the fight.  I am tired of it in every possible way one can be tired.  Enough.  I have other—and I hope better—things to do.  Certainly more sane things, ones that don’t pull me into the orbit of the crazies.  (It is the relentless energy of those right-wing thugs, the way they work every angle and never let an opportunity to do harm pass them by, that amazes, frightens, and exhausts me.  Yes, I hate to let them win, but nothing I have done to date has kept them from winning and now, like Thoreau, I feel—at least at times—that I have other matters to attend to.)

The fact that I am deeply ashamed of UNC plays a role in my decision to retire.  I have given over 25 years of my life to this institution—and for most of those years, even as I fought those losing battles, I felt UNC had a fundamentally good heart, that it usually did the right thing when it came to the big issues.  I may have been very naïve about that—but our wonderful students, my conscientious colleagues, and an approachable administration that listened to (even when it ignored) advice made me love this place. I was given the freedom to do what I believed in during the time I directed the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. More generally, UNC was good to me and Jane, giving us scope to pursue out interests, and paying us generously.  We met (this is no exaggeration) hundreds of people—students, colleagues, alumni—during our years at UNC who inspired us in one way or another.

My work with interesting and committed donors contributed to my general sense of well-being.  But then the university’s response to the athletic scandal of fake classes, its failure to address forthrightly the racial legacy represented by Silent Sam, and its supine self-prostration before a Board of Governors determined to destroy public higher education made me want to walk away.  I made my public howls of protest, for which my fellow faculty thanked me and to which the administration turned a cold shoulder.  I had had enough.

I hope that UNC is on a better path now.  The current chancellor does understand how damaged the Carolina community has been by the events of the past eight years—and is trying to fix that damage.  I wish him luck.  But I am relieved to be walking away.  I don’t want to be part of that effort.  It’s been too discouraging to watch the lack of courage and honesty that got us to our current state.

So I retreat into a more private space.  Writing my blog, riding my bike, seeing friends and traveling.  Jane and I will become grandparents in the next few weeks, with our granddaughter in DC with her parents.  I am committed to helping my daughter-in-law keep her theater company, We Happy Few, afloat—and thriving.  We will also help with child care.  Return trips to Italy, Cornwall, and New Zealand are highest on the travel list.

Inevitably, I will become involved in some kind of political work.  I refuse (mostly) to give money to campaigns any more.  (I end up donating to down-ballot races when I get a direct appeal from a friend involved in that campaign.)  Contributions to the national races just seems like abetting a corrupt system.  And I hate the way I get blackmailed into giving because the other side is spending so much.  Instead, I give the money I used to throw at Democratic presidential and Senate candidates to local charities that I know are doing good work.  Maybe I will also work for that kind of charity instead of for a more directly political cause.  I would like to find something I believe in and that seems effective to throw myself into.  The theater company has that appeal.

And this blog.  It is strangely comforting to write posts that feel addressed to an audience out there, even if I know only a tiny few (ten or twelve maybe) are on the receiving end.  The pressure of an imagined audience puts a little spine into the writing.  But the knowledge that there isn’t really an audience (or certainly not a judging one) gives me the sense that I can write whatever I like, ramble, digress, indulge myself.  It’s the perfect form for me, not utterly solipsistic, but relieved of any need to please an audience.  I can just write to please myself—and let anyone who wishes listen in.

That’s the thing about writers.  They always write far more than any reader could ever possibly read.  Writing, a matter of so much pain and angst for many academics, is an addiction like any other for those of us who can’t stop pouring the words out.  The blog will abide.  It is pure pleasure, completely divorced from any sense of obligation or responsibility, just another indulgence in what I intend to be a blissful retirement in which I do the things I want to do. No more, no less.

Joseph North Two—Rigor and Memory (Oh My!)

It must be something in the water in New Haven.  North deploys the term “rigor” as frequently as Paul DeMan, with whom he has just about nothing else in common.  I will just offer two instances.  The first comes from his closing exhortation to his readers “to secure a viable site within the social order from which to work at criticism in the genuinely oppositional sense” (211).  Success in this effort would requires “a clear and coherent research program together with a rigorous new pedagogy, both of which, I think, would need to be founded on an intellectual synthesis that addressed the various concerns of the major countercurrents in a systematic and unitary way’ (211).

In the Appendix, the issue is described in this way:  “How does one pursue the tenuous task of cultivating an appreciation for the aesthetic without lapsing into mere impressionism?  How does one pursue this task with a rigor sufficient to qualify one’s work as disciplinary in the scientific terms recognized by the modern university” (217).

[A digression: nothing in the book suggests that North takes an oppositional stance toward the “modern university”—or to its notions of what constitutes a discipline, what “counts as” knowledge, or its measures of productivity.  Rather, he is striving to secure the place of literary studies within that university in order to pursue an oppositional, “radical” (another favorite word, one always poised against “liberal”) program toward modern, capitalist society.]

Rigor, as far as I am concerned, is a half step away from rigor mortis.  When I think of brilliant instances of close reading, rigor is just about the last word that comes to mind.  Supple, lively, surprising, imaginative, even fanciful.  In short, a great close reading quickens.  It bring its subject to life; it opens up, it illuminates. The associative leaps, the tentative speculations, the pushing of an intuition a little too far.  Those are the hallmarks of the kind of close reading that energizes and inspires its readers.  What that reader catches is how the subject at hand energized and inspired the critic.

Similarly, a rigorous pedagogy would, it seems to me, be the quickest way to kill an aesthetic sensibility.  The joyless and the aesthetic ne’er should meet.

Not surprisingly, I have a similar antipathy to “method.”  Close reading is not a method.  To explain why not is going to take a little time, but our guide here is Kant, who has wise and very important things to say about this very topic in his Critique of Judgment.  Spending some time with Kant will help clarify what it is the aesthetic can and can’t do.

But let’s begin with some mundane contrasts.  The cook at home following a recipe.  The lab student preforming an experiment.  The young pianist learning to play a Beethoven sonata.  The grad student in English learning to do close readings.  Begin by thinking of the constraints under which each acts—and the results for which each aims.  The cook and the lab student want to replicate the results that the instructions that have been given should lead to.  True, as cooks and lab students become more proficient practitioners, they will develop a “feel” for the activity that allows them to nudge it in various ways that will improve the outcomes.  The map (the instructions) is not a completely unambiguous and fully articulated guide to the territory.  But it does provide a very definite path—and the goal is to get to the designation that has been indicated at the outset. Surprises are almost all nasty in this endeavor.  You want the cake to rise, you want the experiment to land in the realm of replicable results.

The pianist’s case is somewhat different, although not dramatically so.  In all three cases so far, you can’t learn by simply reading the recipe, the instructions, the musical score.  You must actually do the activity, walk the walk, practice the practice.  There is more scope (I think, but maybe I am wrong) for interpretation, for personal deviance, in playing the Beethoven.  But there is limited room for “play” (using “play” in the sense “a space in which something, as a part of a mechanism, can move” and “freedom of movement within a space”—definitions 14 and 15 in my Random House dictionary.)  Wander too far off course and you are no longer playing that Beethoven sonata.

Now let’s consider our grad student in English.  What instructions do we give her?  The Henry James dictum: “be someone on whom nothing is lost”?  Or the more direct admonition: “Pay attention!”  Where do you even tell the student to begin.  It is not simply a case of (shades of Julie Andrews) beginning at the beginning, a very good place to start, since a reading of a Shakespeare sonnet might very well begin with an image in the seventh line.  In short, what’s the recipe, what’s the method?  Especially since the last thing we want is an outcome that was dictated from the outset, that was the predictable result of our instructions.

Kant is wonderful on this very set of conundrums.  So now let’s remind ourselves of what he has to say on this score.  We are dealing, he tells us, with two very different types of judgment, determinative and reflexive.  Determinative judgments guide our practice according to pre-set rules.  With the recipe in hand and a desire to bake a cake, my actions are guided by the rules set down for me.  Beat the batter until silky smooth (etc.) and judgment comes in since I have to make the call as to when the batter is silky smooth.  In reflexive judgment, however, the rule is not given in advance.  I discover the rule through the practice; the practice is not guided by the rule.

Kant’s example, of course, is the beautiful in art.  Speaking to the artist, he says: “You cannot create a beautiful work by following a rule.”  To do so, would be to produce an imitative, dispirited, inert, dead thing.  It would be, in a word, “academic.”  Think of all those deadly readings of literary texts produced by “applying” a theory to the text.  That’s academic—and precisely against the very spirit of the enterprise.

Here’s a long selection of passages from Kant’s Third Critique that put the relevant claims on the table.  We can take Kant’s use of the term “genius” with a grain of salt, translating it into the more modest terms we are more comfortable with these days.  For genius, think “someone with a displayed talent for imaginative close readings.”

Kant (from sections 46 and 49) of the third Critique:  “(1) Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinative rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other; hence the foremost property of genius must be originality. (2) Since nonsense too can be original, the products of genius must also be models, i.e. they must be exemplary; hence, though they do not themselves arise through imitation, still they must serve others for this, i.e. as a standard or rule by which to judge. (3) Genius itself cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products . . . . That is why, if an author owes his product to his genius, he himself does not know how he came by the ideas for it; nor is it in his power to devise such products at his pleasure, or by following a plan, and to communicate his procedure to others in precepts that would enable them to bring about like products” (Section 46).

“These presuppositions being given, genius is the exemplary originality of a subject’s natural endowment in the free use of his cognitive powers.  Accordingly, the product of a genius (as regards what is attributable to genius in it rather than to possible learning or academic instruction) is an example that is meant not to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius.  (For in mere imitation the element of genius in the work—what constitutes its spirit—would be lost.)  The other genius, who follows the example, is aroused to a feeling of his own originality, which allows him to exercise in art his freedom from the constraint of rules, and to do so in such a way that art acquires a new rule by this, thus showing that talent is exemplary” (Section 49).

Arendt on Kant’s Third Critique.  Cavell on It Happened One Night.  Sedgwick on Billy Budd.  Sianne Ngai on “I Love Lucy.” I defy anyone to extract a “method” from examining (performing an autopsy?) these four examples of close reading. Another oddity of North’s book is that for all his harping on the method of close reading, he offers not a single shout-out to a critic whose close readings he admires.  It is almost as if the attachment to “method” necessitates the suppression of examples.  Precisely because a pedagogy via examples is an alternative to the systematic, rigorous, and methodical pedagogy he wants to recommend.

But surely Kant is right.  First of all, right on the practical grounds that our student learns how to “do” close reading by immersion in various examples of the practice, not by learning a set of rules or “a” method.  Practice makes all the difference in this case; doing it again and again in an effort to reach that giddy moment of freedom, when the imagination, stirred by the examples and by the object of scrutiny, takes flight.  Surely “close reading” is an art, not a science.

And there, in the second and more important place, is where Kant is surely right.  If the very goal is to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, how could we think that the modes of scientific practice, with its vaunted method and its bias toward replicable and predictable results, would serve our needs?  The game is worth the candle precisely because the aesthetic offers that space of freedom, of imaginative play, of unpredictable originality.  If the aesthetic stands in some kind of salutary opposition to the dominant ethos of neoliberalism, doesn’t that opposition rest on its offer of freedom, of the non-standard, of the unruly, of non-productive imaginings?  Why, in other words, is the aesthetic a threat and a respite from the relentless search for returns on investment, for the incessant demand that each and every one of us get with the program?  That they hate us is a badge of honor; being systematic seems to want to join the “rationalized” world of the economic?  [Side note: here is where critique cannot be abandoned.  We must keep pounding away at the quite literal insanity, irrationality, of the market and all its promoters.  But the aesthetic should, alongside critique, continued to provide examples of living otherwise, of embodying that freedom of imagination.]

Kant, of course, famously resists the idea that lack of method, praise of an originality that gives the rule to itself, means that anything goes.  Genius is to be disciplined by taste, he writes.  We judge the products produced by the would-be genius—and deem some good examples and others not so good.  I am, in fact, very interested in the form that discipline takes in Kant, although this post is already way too long so I won’t pursue that tangent here.  Suffice it to say two things:

1. The standard of taste connects directly to Kant’s fervent desire for “universal communicability.”  He fears an originality so eccentric that it places the genius outside of the human community altogether.  If genius is originality, taste is communal (the sensus communis)—and Kant is deeply committed to the role art plays in creating and sustaining community.  The artist should, even as she pursues her original vision, also have the audience in mind, and consider how she must shape her vision in order to make it accessible to that audience.  So we can judge our students’ attempts to produce close readings in terms of how they “speak” to the community, to the audience.  Do they generate, for the reader, that sense that the text (or film or TV show) in question has been illuminated in exciting and enlivening ways?  There is an “a-ha” moment here that is just about impossible to characterize in any more precise–or rigorous–way.

2. Taste, like genius, is a term that mostly embarrasses us nowadays. It smacks too much of 18th century ancien regime aristocrats.  But is “aesthetic sensibility” really very different from “taste”?  Both require cultivating; both serve as an intuitional ground for judgments.  In my next post—where I take up the question of sensibility—I want to consider this connection further.

But, for now, a few words more about “close readings.  Just because there is no method to offer does not mean we cannot describe some of the characteristics of close reading.  I think in fact, we can call close readings examples of “associative thinking.”  A close reading (often, hardly always) associates disparate things together—or dissociates things that we habitually pair together or considered aligned.  So Arendt shows us how Kant’s third Critique illuminates the nature of the political; Cavell enriches a meditation on finitude through an engagement with It Happened One Night; Sedgwick’s reading of Billy Budd illustrates how homosexuality is both acknowledged and denied; Ngai associates a situation comedy with the nature of precarious employment.  In each case, there is an unexpected—and illuminating, even revelatory—crossing of boundaries.  Surprising juxtapositions (metonymy) and unexpected similarities where before we only saw differences (metaphor).  Which takes us all the way back to Aristotle’s comment “that the metaphorical kind [of naming] is the most important by far.  This alone (a) cannot be acquired from someone else, and (b) is an indication of genius” [that word again!] (Sectoin 22 of the Poetics).  There is no direct way to teach someone how to make those border crossings.

How is this all related to judgment?  Both to Aristotle’s phronesis (sometimes translated as “practical wisdom”) and to Kantian judgment.  (Recall that morality for Kant is too important to leave to judgment of the reflexive sort; he wants a foolproof method for making moral judgments.  Aristotle is much more willing to see phronesis at work in both ethics and aesthetics.)  We get wrong-footed, I think, when we tie judgment to declaring this work or art beautiful or not, this human action good or evil.  Yes, we do make such judgments.

But there is another site of judgment, the one where we judge (or name) what situation confronts us.  Here I am in this time and place; what is it that I am exactly facing?  Here is where associative thinking plays its role.  How is this situation analogous to other situations I know about—either from my own past experiences or from the stories and lessons I have imbibed from my culture?  Depending on how I judge the situation, how I name it, is what I deem possible to make of it.  Creative action stems from imaginative judgments, from seeing in this situation possibilities not usually perceived.

That’s the link of judgment to the aesthetic: the imaginative leaps that, without the conformist safety net of a rule or method, lead to new paths of action.  If we (as teachers in the broad field of aesthetics) aim to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, it is (I believe) to foster this propensity in our students for originality, for genius—in a world where conformity (the terror of being unemployable, of paying the stiff economic price of not following the indicated paths) rules.  Judgment, like metaphorical thinking, is an art, not a science—and cannot be taught directly, but only through examples.  It’s messy and uncertain (expect lots of mistakes, lots of failed leaps).  And it will exist in tension with “the ordinary”—and, thus, will have to struggle to find bridges back to the community, to the others who are baffled by the alternative paths, the novel associations, you are trying to indicate.

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.