Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem. By Eric Bennett

NB: This comment on the issues connected to 'multi-culturalism' and 'deconstruction' is written about American literary and media studies departments, but is relevant in other continents. DS

Now that we have a culture of higher education in which business studies dominate; now that we face legislatures blind to the value of the liberal arts; now that we behold in the toxic briskness of the four-hour news cycle a president and party that share our disregard for expertise while making a travesty of our aversion to power, the consequences of our disavowal of expertise are becoming clear. The liquidation of literary authority partakes of a climate in which all expertise has been liquidated. In such a climate, nothing stands against demagoguery. What could?

That English departments have contributed to this state of affairs is ironic to say the least. A lifetime ago, literary studies was conceived precisely in opposition to the specter of demagogues. The field was funded and justified on the presumption of its value as a bulwark against propaganda and political charisma. Our predecessors feared more or less exactly what we now face. The discipline we’ve deconstructed was their answer to it...

Even the most devoted relativist cannot behold Fox News or Breitbart and not regard these media outlets as propagandistic in the most flagrant sense. Eisenhower would have balked. Promoting conspiracy theories, granting vile charisma a national platform, amplifying peccadillos into crimes and reducing crimes to peccadillos, they embody everything that literary studies was meant, once, to defend against — not through talking politics, but by exercising modes of expression slow enough to inoculate against such flimsy thinking. Yet the editorial logic of right-wing media resembles closely the default position of many recent books and dissertations in literary studies: The true story is always the oppositional story, the cry from outside. The righteous are those who sift the shadows of the monolith to undermine it in defense of some notion of freedom.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the longstanding professorial disinclination to distinguish better from worse does not inspire confidence. The danger of being too exclusive, which the canon once was, pales before the danger of refusing to judge.

Can the average humanities professor be blamed if she rises in the morning, checks the headlines, shivers, looks in the mirror, and beholds a countenance of righteous and powerless innocence? Whatever has happened politically to the United States, it’s happened in stark opposition to the values so many philosophers and English professors, historians and art historians, creative writers and interdisciplinary scholars of race, class, and gender hold dear.

We are, after all, the ones to include diverse voices on the syllabus, use inclusive language in the classroom, teach stories of minority triumph, and, in our conference papers, articles, and monographs, lay bare the ideological mechanisms that move the cranks and offices of a neoliberal economy. Since the Reagan era our classrooms have mustered their might against thoughtless bigotry, taught critical thinking, framed the plight and extolled the humanity of the disadvantaged, and denounced all patriotism that curdles into chauvinism.
We’ve published books like Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity - treatises that marshal humane nuance against prejudice, essentialism, propaganda, and demagogic charisma. We’ve cast out Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Steve Bannon, but also Allan Bloom, Jordan Peterson, Richard J. Herrnstein, and Charles Murray. Our manner has been academic, but our matter has been political, and we have fought hard. So how have we ended up in these ominous political straits? The easy answer is frightening enough: We don’t really matter. 

The hard one chills the blood: We are, in fact, part of the problem.

How has this sorry reality come to pass, across the humanities, and as if despite them? I can only tell a story of my own field and await the rain of stones. Three generations ago, literature professors exchanged a rigorously defined sphere of expertise, to which they could speak with authority, for a much wider field to which they could speak with virtually no power at all. No longer refusing to allow politics to corrupt a human activity that transcends it, they reduced the literary to the political. 

The change was sharp. From World War I until the 1960s, their forerunners had theorized literature as a distinct practice, a fine art, a realm of its own. Whether in the scholarship of the Russian Formalists, in T.S. Eliot’s archconservative essays, or in such mid-century monuments as Erich Auerbach’s 
Mimesis (1946), René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1948), and Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), literature was considered autonomous… read more:

see also
Articles on ideology in East Europe