Can Literary Scholars Transcend Their Training?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Every semester, thousands of American literary scholars concoct new interpretations of works of literature and new arguments about literary studies itself. They assume, pretend, hope, or dream that their words carry the revolutionary force of radical policy reform. They believe that literary studies done right — like defunding the police or dismantling systemic racism — shall topple what needs toppling. Their criticism will help overthrow the ideological status quo of proto-fascist neoliberal states like the United States. It’s a curious overestimation of muscle for a discipline whose landmarks include Don Quixote and Madame Bovary — novels about people who confuse books with life.

This argument (minus the Cervantes and Flaubert) is the damning linchpin of John Guillory’s new state-of-the-field collection of essays, Professing Criticism. Over the last few decades, Guillory, an English professor at New York University, observes, “the discipline and its institutional structures, especially the curriculum,” have been reimagined as something they’re not — “as surrogates for the social totality.” Battle a book, the thinking goes, and you battle the truth the book reflects; “the curriculum becomes the site of a proxy war.” Since literature professors constitute their own best audience, the echo chambers roar with system-dismantling interventions that dismantle nothing so definitely as the discipline itself. We “must settle for the declaration rather than the realization” of our “critical motives,” Guillory observes. These motives are “a kind of imaginary fiat, imputing to even the most recondite scholarship the capacity to function as a criticism of society, an Archimedean lever.” Archimedes without a place to stand is a freak with a monstrous prop wobbling high above his head. That, in fact, is what we look like on campus.

To those in the field — and to those who read The Chronicle — this argument will be familiar. The novelty is that Guillory is a senior scholar and major figure in the field with impeccable left-wing bona fides — and that he offers a historically profound account of the straits. Guillory surveys trends going back to the Greeks and does so with a particular focus on the last four centuries. Reading Professing Criticism is like taking a familiar hike with an 18-foot-tall friend who sees not only the hills but also the hills beyond them, and the ones beyond those.

Guillory describes our delusions in language borrowed not from literature but from social theory. (This accords with his established practice of handling the profession sociologically; his Cultural Capital, from 1993, helped direct a generation of graduate students to the work of Pierre Bourdieu.) To master something, Nietzsche argued, is to deform yourself in its direction. In modern academe, groups of people tighten the rules by which they deform themselves, which makes it even worse. Thorstein Veblen called the phenomenon “trained incapacity,” and John Dewey, “occupational psychosis.” “Professional deformation,” Guillory writes, “is an unavoidable byproduct of the assertion of that autonomy enabling the cultivation of professional expertise to begin with and that insulates such expertise to some extent from the tyranny of the market and from the draconian intervention of the political system.” Professors achieve power internal to the university by cutting themselves off from the external world.

The problem for literary studies is that throughout its institutionalization it has never ceded its dreams of external sway. Before there was a discipline, there was a reading public, and that public remains the ghost clientele of today’s professors. The 17th century gave birth to the influential man (and occasional woman) who made a living by commenting in fine prose on everything under the sun. The 18th century refined the type, and the 19th century vaunted it. What began in the courts of Louis the XIV as highbrow gossip got written down by John Dryden as serious literary criticism, broadened into taste-cultivating generalizing by Addison and Steele, heaved to the summits of philosophy by Coleridge and Carlyle, and resolved into politics by Matthew Arnold. It still dazzles the ambition of lots of graduate students and professors. We cherish the notion that our literary opinions could carry the force of fact.

Unfortunately, literary opinions carry such force only for people who believe in literature. The old lineage, of course, did believe, and so did its original audience. Twentieth-century scions like T.S. Eliot and the New Critics were believers too, and they helped conceive modern English departments. But these forebears of the discipline were largely conservative. And the graduate students and professors dazzled by them today are not conservative. They are reading Pierre Bourdieu.

Guillory shares the politics of the scholars he chastises. But Professing Criticism is full of arguments that would sound conservative coming from anybody else. Translate them into firmer, simpler language, and you would sound like the enemy — like William Bennett or Allan Bloom. Guillory sees that literary scholars today can’t make a convincing external case for what they do. Rather, they are justified by a faith that only their own ranks share. The future of the discipline cannot possibly lie in its longstanding consensus that “taste” and “judgment” and “standards” are simply the heartless weapons of a mystified right or the silly pretensions of snobs out of step with history. It might even lie in taste and judgment and standards.

The past, for Guillory, is not simply a maelstrom of benighted terror (though it is that, too) but the place where the best practices of people who love language thrived. Since the rise of industrialism, language use has narrowed cripplingly, and scholars can’t regain literary power without regaining intellectual breadth.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG is reminded of a 1765 quote from Samuel Johnson:

It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or party. The various readings of copies, and different interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that might exercise the wit, without engaging the passions.

But whether it be, that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.

PG Note: A “Scholiast” is a commentator on ancient or classical literature. In other words, a scholar.

3 thoughts on “Can Literary Scholars Transcend Their Training?”

  1. ““Professional deformation,” Guillory writes, “is an unavoidable byproduct of the assertion of that autonomy enabling the cultivation of professional expertise to begin with and that insulates such expertise to some extent from the tyranny of the market and from the draconian intervention of the political system.””

    My head hurts.

    No wonder they are not taken seriously by the outside world – they’ve let themselves get so jargonified the people outside have no idea what they’re saying.

    This example is perilously close to the ones constructed as a psychological test: have someone declaim nonsense in front of a group of people in a discipline (I refuse to say scientific discipline meaning hard science), which is then praised by said group.

    I explain fusion to small children sometimes. They don’t get all the nuances of magnetic versus inertial confinement, necessarily, but I do it in English. And I prefer to tell a story in my retirement profession as novelist such that few readers get headaches.

    • I noted that same sentence. I think he’s saying, “They talk only to each other, and nobody else cares.”

      Regarding explaining the complex in simple terms, one of the great benefits of YouTube is all the videos explaining complex scientific ideas in terms and animations that an average person can understand. Do I understand quantum theory? No. But I do have an idea of what physicists observed and set out to explain. It’s easy for the clock to get to 3am bouncing from one to another of these.

  2. It’s not the training of literary scholars that leads to this claptrap. It’s the tenure and promotion process. But that’s a longwinded, jargon-filled subject for another time initially illustrated by this:

    Look at the course catalog in the literature departments of any university with fewer than 12,000 or so undergraduates. I can virtually guarantee that the freshman- and sophomore-level course descriptions are for material on which one cannot currently base a successful strategy to obtain tenure and promotion to full Professor, and with rare exceptions not even to tenure. Any scholarly essay, book, colloquium, whatever that just concerns itself with, say, the nineteenth-century English novel without bringing in an archly non-reading-based perspective (such as “Latino perspectives on”) will be ignored for want of original research and thinking to advance the field.

    It’s just as bad, if often a bit more subtle, across the rest of the humanities and much of the social sciences. It’s even getting that way at the freshman level in the natural sciences. And that has a pernicious effect on both thought and communication regarding those “mere” introductory courses and their subject-matter and what to do with them when discussing them with those to whom they are, in fact, new. (What this says about the jargon-filled works in law — even those purportedly aimed at practitioners and not academics — is for another time. Just remember that in law, “research” consists of finding someone’s utterances that prove that An Authority said before exactly what you want to say now.)

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