I Blame English Departments: An Only Partly Tongue-In-Cheek Response to Alyssa Rosenberg and Freddie DeBoer

Alyssa Rosenberg responds to Freddie DeBoer’s piece on the political predictability of online art criticism and … dear God, just the structure of that sentence is a throwback to the mid-00s Golden Age of Blogging. (“Drum responds to Krugman. They’re both wrong, because…”) Both writers make good points. And they are both right in identifying, and lamenting, a certain sameness. Rosenberg:

The problem with the current state of political art criticism isn’t really that it’s political, but that it’s predictable–and that if we really want our mass culture to be telling dramatically different stories and staging radically different discussions, I’m not sure what we’re doing is actually working. That doesn’t mean that we should surrender, and accept that pop culture simply is what it is, and go back to agonizing over Ross and Rachel’s relationship in re-runs or fretting over the kids and their Ariana Grandes. It means that, having cracked open the idea that Hollywood doesn’t exist divorced from the world, it’s time for the real work to get started.

Right. But at this point in the piece, Rosenberg has already pointed out that there’s no consensus at all on what the “real work” actually is. We don’t have the first clue what art is and how its various imperatives might link up with those of ethics and politics. Rosenberg does a decent job naming some of the more obviously unsettled questions:

Is art meant to inspire us by presenting us the world as it could be, or to galvanize us to action by showing our society in all the astonishing ugliness it so often displays? Is equality putting admirable representatives of under-represented groups on screen? Or is it treating characters of color, women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities as if they’re just as capable of venality and repugnance as able-bodied straight, white men? In treating political systems, are we interested in fine-grained explorations of institutions and individuals within them, or broad judgement? Do we trust audiences to pick up on subtlety, or do we operate on the idea that many people who consume pop culture are either stupid or uninterested in nuance? Do we think political art should serve to deepen the commitment of the already-converted, or do we hope that it can reach new people in part by breaking out of the hardened arteries that circumscribe so many of our political debates? How do we reckon with artists whose technical abilities compel us even as their ideas rattle us?

I don’t, of course, think that any culture-wide consensus on these questions is coming. To go on wrestling with them, alone and with others, constitutes to a great extent what culture and aesthetics and politics are, just as “religion,” often as not, simply names a set of questions one can’t hope to resolve. (A monotheist is not only permitted to ask “Where was God in the concentration camps?”; she or he is, in many ways, the only person who can meaningfully ask it. When Bertrand Russell does it it’s just rhetoric. This is why, among other things, XTC’s song “Dear God” has always struck me as the one really false note on Skylarking.) But there’s productive wrestling and there’s clickbait.

A conservative would surely look at both DeBoer’s and Rosenberg’s arguments and assign the problem to a lack of, that word again, diversity. Online commentary on art is boringly samey because of systemic liberal bias. I am slow to embrace this argument because I am not a conservative! That doesn’t mean that I have such ill-will toward conservatives as a group as to wish that none of them enjoy the powerful and remunerative life of the online cultural commentator. (Indeed, recommending such an existence to conservatives might be a sign of greater personal animus toward them than I do feel.) It’s because many of the political ideas we label “conservative” happen to be ones I think are wrongif I didn’t think so, I’d go be a conservative!and if my principles are urging me to wish to see error amplified and untruths made more powerful, that means my argument’s probably gone haywire somewhere. (That said, there are particular conservatives, Alan Jacobs chief among them, whose bylines I’d like to see far more often than I do.)

But I think the sameyness has nothing to do with ideological conformity, anyway: “left-liberal” names an enormous spectrum and a group of people notorious for their willingness to flay each other alive. (This is, incidentally, why “liberal bias” has always been such an easy charge for conservatives to make. If “liberal” names everybody from Joe Lieberman to Chairman Mao, then it is, to borrow a metaphor from Aristotle, like a door that you can hardly fail to hit. You’d have to work fairly hard not to fit somewhere on that spectrum. Though people do.) Right now, on my TL, two popular internet Marxists both of whose work I like are screaming at each other. It happens every day. We know this.

I think the reiterative quality of this cultural conversation goes back, rather, to who the participants are and how they’re trained. I don’t mean that many of them are male and many of them are white and even more of them are middle-class in origin, though that’s probably true. It makes a great comic trope to pretend that all middle-class white men think the same, but a trope is all it is. No, it’s something else that they have in common. It’s their major.

Is it really going out on a limb to assume that many of the writers we’re talking about were English majors?

Certainly not all of them are. Some of them were Gender Studies majors. (But there’s a lot of texts and argumentative moves in common there.) Some were, I don’t know, pre-med, but they took a ton of lit classes. Some probably did Media Studies, which is so similar as often to be housed in the same department. The tough ones may, at most, have gone Comparative Lit and actually had to learn a second language. But, and again this is an assumption, I suspect many of them encountered the same body of theorists and the same styles of classroom debate that define Englishinsofar as anything, these days, defines English.

I’m going to go out on a second limb and assume that class content and discussion looks for many English majors the way it did for me. I could just be describing the extent of my bad luck here. But my experience as a grad student in English was that you learned literary theory and methods far more extensively than you learned literature, and that the way you learned them made repetitive and fruitless arguments more of a feature than a bug. Fellow English-degree holders, see if any of this is recognizable:

a) You were more likely to be conversant, at least in a name-dropping way, with ideas that have to do with methods of literary study than you are with a large range of texts from literary history.

This is really straightforward. I had to read Derrida’s “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” several times as homework. I never once had to read Chekhov. Long novels don’t fit easily into a syllabus, so I had to do, say, Don Quixote and War and Peace on my own. (Which I did, because I am crazy. But most people aren’t and won’t.) When you think both about how overall degree requirements are structured (everybody has to take a methods class, but period requirements are weak and constantly get weaker) and how individual courses are set up–even if the class is explicitly concerned with novels or essays or poems, a professor who doesn’t assign a ton of difficult, recent secondary reading isn’t properly performing the identity “rigorous intellectual”–you’re just a lot more likely to have been made to read Kristeva, Agamben, Said, Foucault, Gilbert and Gubar, Bhabha, Derrida, hooks, Lacan, Lorde, and Gallop multiple times than to have been made to read, say, Muriel Spark, Gayl Jones, J.F. Powers, William Hazlitt, or Lady Murasaki. (The Anglo bias of English departments worsens this, of course.) If, like most English grad students, you teach, and if your boss is into Ways of Reading, then at least at those schools the tendency is strengthened by the teacher-training process and, for undergrads, it begins as far back as first semester, first year.

b) Your class discussions were far more likely to use literary texts as loci for discussion of problems raised by these thinkers than discussion of, say, poetry or prose rhythm, the use of rhetorical figures, structure, etc.

I assign students in my 221 class to read Richard Lanham’s “The Domain of Style” in the first week of school. He remarks that most grad students in English don’t know what hypotaxis is. I always point out to my students that I do know what it is, but only because I look it up before class.

I do know twelve different ways to spot a Madwoman in the Attic, though.

c) The way you learned theory and methods was typically decontextualized. 

You learn to sneer “pathetic fallacy!” without learning who John Ruskin is, or about the nineteenth century’s medievalism fetish, or how the Romantics relate to German philosophy, or… You get a weirdly truncated, Up-With-People version of Foucault but never learn about the Annales school, or the weird cultural practice that was midcentury French leftism. The articles read in a class are presented as if they are in conversation with each other, even if they were originally in conversation with very different folks on very different issues.

d) The way you learned theory and methods involved a very aggressive version of Peter Elbow’s Believing Game

I was, of course, taught Freudian criticism several times. After the second time, I started admitting up-front that I think Freud is kinda bullshit. This is a legitimate opinion for a person to haveafter all, psychology as a field seems to have reached roughly the same conclusion. But my arguments, even when they reached levels of substance far beyond “Freud is kinda bullshit” (which of course isn’t helpful), were not so much answered as shushed. Professors seemed to want you to put on whole systems of ideas as if they were a pair of glasses, and look through them rather than at them. This is OK to do when you’re trying to ensure basic comprehension, but at some point in the education process it is should stop.

I had heard people say a thousand times some variation on “language is a closed system and therefore can’t refer beyond itself” before someone pointed out to me that this is an argument that wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in a philosophy classroom. (The second part of the claim simply doesn’t follow. You can think of vision as a “closed system” and yet we do seem to go around looking at things that aren’t our eyes.) It’s because nobody was encouraging me to apply basic logic to any of the ideas that came from Methods of Literary Studies or Literary Theory classes. Ever.

The result of all these is that students learn to throw around a series of ideas, tropes, phrases, and bits of argument without stopping either to figure out how they all relate to each other (frequently they don’t) or how much merit any of them carries in itself. People learn to yell “intentional fallacy!” whenever anyone alludes to a writer’s stated and clear intentions, even though the philosophical presuppositions that led Wimsatt and Beardsley to define such allusions as fallacy aren’t shared by a single person in the room. People work themselves haggard trying to ensure that their response to a text is “materialist”… who are not Marxists. People use definitions of “trauma” that only make sense if you think Lacan makes sense.

And here’s the keystudents are encouraged to just dump all of this stuff together, all these “floor sweepings of other disciplines” as Marilynne Robinson put it, and to obsessively reiterate the stale arguments that tend to emerge from unresolved and unarticulated conflicts … and to consider all of this conversation. In grad school I would show up week after week knowing that we would go through the same motions: When this male writer uses this sexist trope, is he parodying or reinscribing said trope? Within a half hour you’d know who is Team Parodying and who is Team Reinscribing this week, and then you’d just listen to them circle the drain. Every week. For months.

To actually resolve any issues, you’d have to do something it is in almost no one’s interest to do: you’d have to define what the hell an English class is for, and what counts as a “good” argument, what constitutes proof one way or the other. Nobody wants to do that. For one thing, you’d be implying that too many people you work with and like are doing work that’s not “really” English. (I mean, wouldn’t want to have to define the discipline’s objectives. I’d surely leave out someone I personally want to see employed.) For another, it better matches the needs of the corporate university for English to be a hodgepodge, a sort of ‘Pataphysics drained of all humor and sense of fun. Students like varied course offerings and they like “contemporary relevance,” no matter how forced. These practices offer both. Teaching Gilgamesh tablet VI as an encounter with a canon of mythology and a set of cultural ideas totally alien to us, and encouraging students to inhabit that strange headspace, is never going to get the same sort of buzz as teaching Gilgamesh tablet VI as a really early Amy Schumer sketch. “Innana is such a badass woman! She really owns her sexuality!” (And everyone else’s!) And the incoherence keeps the English faculty fragmented, thus docile and less likely to respond in an effective way when the business school gets all the fancy new computers.

Is it any wonder if people trained in this way go on to write their weekly variations on the theme “Why This Thing is Problematic,” “Why This Thing Looks Problematic But Is Not,” “Why It’s Great That This Thing is Problematic”; or “Why This Seemingly Common Thing Is Actually Part of the Revolution” vs. “Why This Seemingly Common Thing Is Actually a Common Thing and Not at All Revolutionary”; or “This Thing is Not Diverse Enough” vs. “This Thing Is Not Diverse Enough But It’s OK Because That Makes It an Expose of the White Male Hivemind”? The habit starts at about age 19. And the very repetitiveness of the discourse serves the needs of the institutions that sign the checks. They need short articles that make readers feel smart without ever reaching the point where they’re resolved enough issues that they think, “I need never read a Lena Dunham think piece again! This is the last one!”

Clarity and rigor here serve no one’s interests: not those of the writers, not those of the clickbait factories (who want to generate controversy without resolving it), not those of the artists reported on. (Being an unresolved problem has made Lena Dunham richer.) It’ll keep going no matter how tired we all get. Nonsense conserves itself. Sense, not so much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s