I was perusing the venerable publication The American Scholar today, just in the interest of keeping up with my own Phi Beta Kappa. I won’t mention the fact that I should probably be getting this journal free, but this is PBK, where you have the honor of buying a seventy-dollar engraved tie clip. If you can see where this is going, you probably know me too well.
Anyway, here’s the spotlighted article, by a certain William M. Chace. Give it a read, it’s free online. I’m always interested in things like this, not just because it’s my field, but because as liberal as I might get, there’s something in the cantankerous “ubi sunt!?” that will always appeal to me, for better or for worse. Anyhow, I read through the piece with increasingly mixed feelings, finally and frustratedly seeing what the problem was. At least, in an opinion I shall seek to disguise as humble.
Here’s the gist of Chace’s argument: we all know that the humanities have lost tremendous ground since mid-century, and largely it has been stampeded and squatted upon by the thugs of Business (alias the Dread Negozioid!). So far, so good: regardless of your ideological stance here, the facts are the facts, and Chace lays them out clearly instead of just ranting, to his credit. Okay. Where to go from here? Instead of defaulting to country-clubby elitism or a caustic jeremiad against the modern univiersity, Chace goes introspective: we ourselves, as English faculty, are to blame for the erosion of humanities education and prestige.
How so? It takes a while for the truth to come out, but it’s basically this: we’ve embraced Critical Theory. ooOOOooo. It’s not said in so many words, but this is what I feel to be the Main Import. In Chace’s words,
… it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.
Okay, we’ve heard this one before, and it’s got a kernel of truth to it; it’s not as though there haven’t been some circus performers on the critical theory tenure tracks. As Henry James could tell you, in far more complicated sentences, importing European culture to our shores isn’t an easy task.
The solution — you might’ve seen it coming from paragraph 1. — is to consolidate, purify, and immure the discipline in clear boundaries, essentially a great-books-new-critical circumambience, which will no doubt attract a smaller but more dedicated crowd, giving English Lit a status somewhat like that of “the study of the classics.” He doesn’t actually recommend a “purge,” but you can easily imagine that this world has little room for a Culler, a Spivak, or other such scholars.
This solution set a lot of little synthesis-bells going off in my head; isn’t this precisely the goal of many in the Republican Party (boot out Scozzafava in favor of Hoffman! Make room for Beck and Palin!), and of a distinct minority in the Roman Catholic church (time to bring in hardline traditionalists and dial everything back to pre-Vatican II times! Make all religious brothers and sisters go behind bars and you’ll get more vocations!)? That’s not a judgment really, since it depends upon your view of those other things to make an analogy. I’m just interested to see such a climate of retrenchment and ideological purification out there in the world today.
It makes me wonder if there isn’t something “out there,” in the general world, that is simply awry. Is it really consolation enough to contract, to retreat, to calmly accept a marginal position? Would this not lead to a necessary ossification, a stagnant lowland into which no fresh, challenging breeze can blow? I don’t even want to touch the G.O.P. or the Catholic church, but just thinking about the humanities (esp. Literature): I submit that the hand-wringing and introspection is a distraction, specifically a displacement of the true problem, the proper object of our militancy. What if the mass exodus into business programs is the result of an irresistible summons from the very fabric of our society? What if people didn’t just “get stupid” and “abandon their culture” this century for no reason, but because economic reality constrained them?
This is where I lose most of you. But I submit that those students’ obsession with financial stability isn’t a root cause of the problem; in other words, the paradigm shift placing money over fulfillment and philosophy didn’t just perversely arise out of some de novo increase in Greed. It’s rather a symptom of the heady, unsustainable trajectory of late capitalism. Does anyone really think that, ceteris paribus, people would still prefer business at the same rate if it paid the exact same as lit or philosophy? I’d like to give our undergraduates just a little more credit. Sure, some of them are devoid of the slightest interest in culture and truth; some should probably not be going to college at all. But for the great mass, who just want to figure things out, their choices are clearly the result not of intrinsic shallowness, but of capitalism breathing down their necks.
It’s time to quit pretending here. Time to quit taking potshots at straw men. The time to agonize over our identity may come, but for now, we know who we are: the people who care, who look for more than the numbness of a moneyed bourgeois satiety. Critical theorists or New Critics or anything in between, we are the humanities, and we’re being choked out. The python of capital has us mostly dead, and the further we move into crisis economics, the more we will be squeezed. Maybe it is time for introspection after all: instead of dithering around within the system and seeking little victories, why not try to imagine a university or a country outside it entirely? We are almost beyond the point of imagining an alternative, but sooner or later, it has to happen.