David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: academia (page 3 of 4)


No art without art, no text without text.

  1. No mention of institutional affiliation.
  2. No discussion of the publishing industry.
  3. No discussion of academia or academic careers.
  4. No attacks on critical theory.
  5. No arguments with or over print media.
  6. No blog triumphalism.
  7. No “literary” vs. “non-literary” classifications.
  8. No arguments from authority.
  9. No false objectivity.
  10. No aping of academic prose styles.
  11. No aping of popular prose styles.
  12. No smugness.
  13. No discussion of this manifesto.

[Thanks to EW for the title and JBF for the runner-up.]

A Note on Hierarchy

What sticks with me most from Paradise Now is the image of the slick, assured Jamal, dressed in a tweed jacket and casually assuring his two suicide bombers of the heaven that awaits them and the nobility of their actions. His first action in the film is to tell Said that he has been chosen; later on, after Said has gone missing, he speaks of nothing but the problem Said has caused, portraying him only in terms of his utility to the militant organization. Leaving aside all the politics of the film (nothing I say below should be taken as any political or moral statement of my own), Abu-Assad’s presentation of Jamal is not sympathetic and constitutes one of the more unambiguous criticisms of the militant movement in the film.

Contrast Jamal to the militant leaders in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, who are as involved and at risk as any of their lieutenants. The Algerian militants lead by example, underscored in how the film shows their rise from the absolute bottom of society, while the leaders in Paradise Now are secretive, smooth, and manipulative. Said and Khaled, the two bombers, are mostly pushed around by forces that they hardly understand.

It’s not just that Jamal is manipulative, but that he represents “the management.” The exploitation and dehumanization of the peons of an organization by its management is such a seemingly universal situation that it makes the members of the militant organizations understandable–no longer the inhuman “other” that the viewer is a tourist amongst–and this is a significant achievement. The Battle of Algiers is far better as propaganda, but its realism only goes as far as the historical level; its characters are hollow in comparison. It is the greater film, but it does not provoke the shock of recognition that Paradise Now does.

Likewise even with Al Qaeda, where the Los Angeles Times underscores the obvious in describing nepotism, micromanagement, and rhetorical hot air:

Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.

Had Mohammed not insisted on such security measures, he suggested, Bin Laden might have endangered the whole mission. That’s because Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire with a huge trust fund, apparently had a knack for forcing Mohammed to take operatives who couldn’t follow directions or keep their mouths shut.

These are patterns that I have seen in every hierarchy I’ve been a part of, from academia to corporations to newspapers to the arts. The most comprehensive portrayal I’ve seen remains The Wire, where the bureaucratic and organizational details of both police department and drug dealer alike ring eerily true: empty suits at the top, political exploiters in the middle, manipulated peons (or frustrated rebels) at the bottom.

Many terrorist leaders have had western educations, so I hesitate to say that the microstructures of these hierarchies are universal, but there is still something uncanny about how the patterns of exploitation and mismanagement repeat themselves with such regularity across diverse situations. I’ll have more to say after I read Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.

Paul Craig Roberts on the Neocons

I just read Paul Craig Roberts’s review of Claes G. Ryn‘s America the Virtuous, in the Jan 2 TLS. Roberts, author of books like The New Color Line, has bona fide conservative credentials: Hoover Institution, Wall Street Journal, and so on. But he’s far more Edmund Burke than Leo Strauss:

The rise of a new Jacobin ideology…has captured the Bush administration and formerly conservative media, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, the Washington Times, and Fox News. Known to the world as neo-conservativism, this ideology is radical, not conservative. It appears to be conservative because, unlike cultural Marxists who find endless social and moral vices in American values and institutions, neo-conservatives find virtue.

Like the Cato Institute, who haven’t been big Bush boosters for a while, Roberts is enough of a libertarian to have it trump his traditional party allegiances. He’s not concerned with corruption, class stratification, or cultural divisons; he’s worried that the “neo-Jacobin” (i.e., Leo Straussian neo-conservatism) approach will be disastrous and wreck the country economically, militarily, and politically.

Listen to him bemoan the lack of an opposition to the neo-cons:

The alternative voice to the new Jacobins is that of postmodernism and cultural Marxism. This voice, strongest in the universities, is hostile to America and works against enculturation of its youth in traditional American values. As cultural Marxism does not resonate with the general population, it is not a political check on the neo-conservatives.

The description of academia is a little harsh, but I have to admire the pithiness of his assessment of its effectiveness.

But I do think he’s gone astray. With Richard Perle out at the Defense Policy Board and Paul Wolfowitz supposedly the next to go (keeping my fingers crossed there), he picks at the wrong part of Strauss’s agenda. Americans aren’t Romans and they aren’t anywhere near as keen on military adventurism; that would be the first chip to fall. Likewise the proclamation of American virtue over rest-of-world vice: it’s a useful rhetorical device, but the ultimate authorities (I would speculate: Rove and Cheney; maybe Rumsfeld, who had different axes to grind than the neocons) decided the adventure in Iraq was a safe bet, not an ideological necessity. Why else was there such a hard push to convince us all (citizens and executives alike) that Iraq would be a cakewalk?

The Roberts article is interesting to me because after all his excoriation of “conservatism” in America today, it still gives the movement some benefit of the doubt by assigning them some pragmatic motives:

The same pragmatic politicians who have no interests except their own re-election might, in fact, safe us from the world the neo-Jacobins have in mind.

Add “accumulation of unchecked, centralized executive power” to the list of interests. This is the Straussian principle–the presence of a totalitarian Platonic ruling class–that poses the most threat to Roberts’s libertarian agenda, and it&#x92s the one most likely to survive the downfall of neo-conservatism…or the downfall of the Bush administration. Here, I think Paul Krugman is totally on the mark:

There is no higher goal. Bush’s motivations are dynastic–to secure his family’s rightful place. While he may have some policy biases–like that “instinctive policy fealty” to the investment business–policy is basically there to serve the acquisition of power, and not the other way around.

The story of neoconservatism and the movement of a radical ideology to the center of the political establishment is more interesting than your typical power-hungry executive, but it’s secondary to, and I think separable from, the dominant theme of domestic control. Still, I have to respect a classical conservative desperate and consistent enough to end on this note:

Although most Americans are unaware of it, their best hope is that Iraqi insurgents succeed in driving the US out of Iraq, thus destroying Bush’s re-election.

What would Burke say?

Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult”

This was originally intended to be a more fleshed-out essay on the preoccupation of current highbrow culture (that which is supposedly good for you) with mass culture, and how the orientation of the critical apparatus to the patently and admittedly braindead mass culture was turning the “public intellectual” scene into a gagging ourobouros. But I lost interest. I got bored with analyses of reality television and Liz Phair’s career that read like ex post facto justifications of the author’s enjoyment of such. I got tired of analyzing them. Someone should, but it won’t be me. I’d rather go back to Musil.

I do think it’s notable that what passes for highbrow content today in Harper’s and the New York Review of Books is so persistent in proclaiming its own worthiness that its attributed value begins to stem mostly from comparison to that which is consumed by the Many. That academia has come to the same state is striking (analysis of the hegemony == watching of the pop culture == more Sopranos please!). When a Washington Post writer is promoting elitism and placing Jonathan Franzen amongst the elect…it’ll take a decade to sort out how the lines got drawn this way. And, well, I still haven’t read Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme.

Since, however, Macdonald comes from the age of the prior intellectual aristocracy in America, full of noble but ineffective spirits like Trilling and Howe, I thought it’d be worthwhile to chart what was hot and what was not in Macdonald’s world. (Some of this is a little unfair since Macdonald charitably admits good qualities in some of the popular stuff, but the categories are still fairly well delineated.)

Highcult (hot)
Edgar Allen Poe
Charles Dickens (at his best)
Evelyn Waugh
Rudolph Serkin
D.W. Griffith
Charlie Chaplin
King James Bible
Rodgers and Hart
Jackson Pollock
Elliott Carter
John Cassavetes
Evergreen Review
Pull My Daisy
New York Review of Books

Midcult (not)
Our Town
By Love Possessed
H.G. Wells
George Orwell
John Hersey
Rodgers and Hammerstein
Atlantic Monthly
Book-of-the-Month Club
Reader’s Digest
The Old Man and the Sea
The Good Earth
Jack Kerouac
Saturday Review
The New Yorker
Colin Wilson

Masscult (not even moreso)
Erle Stanley Gardner
Norman Rockwell
Edna Ferber
James Michener
Norman Vincent Peale
Rock music
Charles Dickens (at his worst)
Grub Street authors
Cecil B. DeMille
Revised Standard Bible

It’s not a bad list, though it’s utterly bewildering that the Kerouac-scripted Beatnik-a-thon Pull My Daisy made it onto the A-list given Macdonald’s criticisms of the Beats elsewhere. But it’s ominous how often he retreats to the past for counterexamples of high art. Maybe this was just prudence on his part: he’d look quite the fool had he put Alain Robbe-Grillet on the Highcult list. But it was his job to take that risk.

Instead, he’s cautious. He quotes Adorno in the essay, and like Adorno, he plays it safe by attaching himself to the contemporary establishment avant-garde. For Adorno, it was Schoenberg; for Macdonald, it’s Pollock and Elliot Carter. He’s very generous towards his critical compatriots on other small, unprofitable magazines in holding them up as cultural arbiters, but he doesn’t do a lot of arbitrating. Somehow, the brand of the magazine becomes the mark of quality rather than the individual work in it. The reason is that he is judging largely by intent rather than by result, never a smart move. But by sticking to the establishment avant-garde, he comes off all right. Even his jazz tastes (designated by Jazz on a Summer’s Day) are old-guard.

The punchline is his one concrete suggestion for the future: pay television. He suggests it would reinstate “editorial intent” in the programming rather than pure pandering, and thus restore integrity (and, he concludes, quality) to the airwaves for the select, elevated few who can appreciate it and cough up the dough.

“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein

Morris Dickstein writes on “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding” in a diffuse article that exemplifies the doom of the provider of an afterword to an anthology. He has to provide an authoritative, paternal perspective without being dismissive of the disparate viewpoints enclosed. The result is skeptical and non-reductionistic, both good, but confusingly equivocal. But I like Dickstein, and he makes some good points that bear blunt extraction.

He treats three main forms of modern literary criticism:

  • New criticism, the more classical approach of close reading, attempting to ferret out tropes and devices that form the shape of a work, usually in a vacuum-sealed context. (F.R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, Northrop Frye, Helen Vendler, etc.)
  • New historicism, that which roughly tries to place work in a very specific historical context, play down the individualistic nature of authorship, and show novels as products of obvious and submerged social forces. (Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Benn Michaels, Nancy Armstrong, etc.)
  • New theory, that which uses a deductive approach from some overarching framework, often political and/or Hegelian, to produce architectonic schemas to apply to work. (In my opinion this is the most varied category he uses, and can include everyone from Harold Bloom to Jacques Derrida to Tzvetan Todorov to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Michael Denning.)

The categories are debatable and overlap; Dickstein admits that. But despite his problems with new historicism, Dickstein essentially gives it a pass over what he says is the staid new criticism and the impotent new theory.

My instinct has always been to group theory and historicism closer together than any other pairing: both can be tremendously reductive and both are inclined to load the dice with an a priori political view which is then used to bludgeon authors into the needed positions. (Read David Lodge’s academic novels of the 70’s for treatments of both approaches.)

But Dickstein strongly pushes the view that it’s theory and new criticism that share a similar self-marginalization and conservatism. Theory, in his mind, was constructed as an apolitical ghetto:

Theory set out to revolutionize the academy, where it had taken refuge from an unsympathetic society. It aimed at a radical transformation of the interpretive disciplines, only to burden them with a sense of skepticism, disillusionment, and broken connections. During the backlash years of Nixonian demagoguery and Reaganite restoration, theory became catastrophe theory, a way of compensating for the sense of impotence, or of recouping failure by showing that it was inevitable, even as critics asserted their power over the text, their refusal to be dominated by its structures, themes, or rhetorical patterns. Emphasizing ideology over interpretation, literary scholarship became a way of seeing through literature, of not being taken in by it.

This is very extreme, basically positing theory as a defense mechanism, and a way of exerting academic superiority not just over texts, but over the common readers who allow themselves to be manipulated. As such, Dickstein paints theory as dishonest and petty. It is a thesis that has recently been taken up by Happy the Tutor. I don’t think it applies in all the cases he believes. Harold Bloom prostrating himself before the altar of Shakespeare and Derrida humbling himself before Poe, among others, seem to advocate an egalitarian engagement and sparring with texts. But both structuralist and the more extreme deconstructionist approaches do advocate such a strict reframing of the work under consideration as to evoke Hamilton Burger browbeating a witness.

Are they, by nature, apolitical, or even conservative? I don’t think the question has a definitive answer, but it’s hard to deny that very little of practical, political worth has come out of theory (Richard Rorty’s strained efforts included). And this willful seclusion has both a cause and effect relationship with the marginalization of the literary academic institution.

Does this match up with the anemic and unimaginative beast that Dickstein makes of classical close reading and new criticism? Partially. The myopic focus on linguistic devices over ideology, character, and authorial intent makes trudging through, for instance, Leavis’s dissection of T.S. Eliot heavy going, but Dickstein sells it short. To the extent that there is still a moral underpinning of the proposed reading, Leavis is selling more than mere lists of tropes. I disagree with Leavis, but at least it’s there. Now, you can say that Leavis isn’t a pardigmatic new critic and five pages of Cleanth Brooks would have me climbing the walls, and you’d be right, but the empiricism is similar, as is the lack of engagement with the world at large, which is the point on which Dickstein condemns them. But that doesn’t quite justify some of the harsher points Dickstein makes about theory, nor does it give much credence to the (heavily conditional) elevation of historism:

Historicist readings too often seem idiosyncratic, empirically tenuous, or merely suggestive. In addition, they are often all too predictable in their political sympathies. Eager to weigh in on the side of the insulted and the injured, they seem determined by their well-meaning political agendas. Yet compared with other ways of reading, they call upon a larger knowledge of the world, and often do more to link literature or theory to the actual flow of human life.

Here I’m skeptical. Analysing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in an exclusively feminist context is valuable, but the degree to which the interpretation crowds out all others is more blinkered than illuminating. (I’m not picking on feminist readings here: so much has been done to Hawthorne in the Puritan context that he can hardly be read for the first time. Melville survives better because his books are too big, literally and metaphorically. I do think Shelley has been done a similarly large disservice.) If the new historicists haven’t been especially good historians, they’re plugging as much a false engagement with literature as the theoreticians. But the key word is “engagement”:

The radical students I taught in the late ’60s were scarcely bent on deconstructing the residues of metaphysics in Western humanist texts. On the contrary, they responded with passion to the classics as subversive works whose humane promise remained unfulfilled. They connected with art and philosophy not because it was canonical but because it felt so fresh, so immediate — and so visionary. Blake, Dickens, Ruskin, and Lawrence seemed like their contemporaries, not the authors of musty classics. Never had the Great Books felt more relevant than when the whole direction of society was in play. The lineage of deconstruction takes us back not to the politics of the ’60s but to its ultimate betrayal and blockage.

What I come away with is Dickstein’s agenda that it’s time for critics to involve themselves in reality again, and if the new historicists are a little shallow or reductionistic, by all means condemn them, but be aware that their aims are noble and practical in the best Thomas Dewey sense. Unfortunately, I believe that this way lies social realism and dreary Upton Sinclair novels. Dickens is so absorbed in his time and place he’s his own new historian, but someone like Blake so defies a historicist reading that Dickstein’s use of him here undermines the point. While Dickstein makes a case that much theory has no place except to belittle greater authors, he basically ignores the longstanding tradition that isolation and myopia have produced in academia, which I’m not yet prepared to discount.

Dickstein makes all these criticisms and more, quite blatantly, against the new historicists, and still seems inclined to give them a break, because of the political agenda. The historians, like Dickstein did, can still serve to point would-be radicals to the ideals set forth in the classics. It’s just that by privileging the near-term practical outcome over the purity of the methodology, they are offering image over substance, much as the 60’s themselves did.

[Probably more to come on this…one afterthought is that I probably shouldn’t have used the word “political” when referring to the broader attitude of “engagement.”]

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