Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ethical Criticism: Blakey Vermeule on Theory, Cornel West in the Academy, Now What?

Several years ago the journal Style devoted a double issue to evolutionary criticism. It had a target article by Joseph Carroll, responses from 10 or 20 other scholars, and then a final reply by Carroll. One of the respondents was Blakey Vermeule:
Response to Joseph Carroll, Style Vol. 42, Nos. 2&3, Summer/Fall 2008, pp. 302-306
She has some fascinating remarks about the presence of Theory in the literary academy. She argues, correctly I believe, that Theory is primarily expressive and is intended to advance a liberationist agenda. I present those remarks in the next section of this post. They lead, in turn, to the case of Cornel West in the academy. He’s one of our most visible public intellectuals, certainly pursues human liberation, but he hasn’t functioned as a purebred academic since some time in the last century. Is there a legitimate place in the academy for Cornel West? I conclude with some brief remarks on how the literary academy should change.

The Expressive Function of Literary Criticism

Vermeule asserts that she’s deeply sympathetic to literary Darwinism, for it (p. 303):
gives us a chance to speak with a common language, a language that runs with the grain of human nature rather than in any old direction. This will certainly improve the intellectual climate overall: more interesting conferences, fewer silly statements, less hair-tearing, less teeth-gnashing (I speak for myself).
She then expresses her doubt that “that having a common, science-based language will make much difference to what English professors do”.

What do they do?
The most successful members of our profession are not philosophers or historians but still even at this late date, critics—people who explain really well what artists are up to (about which more in a moment). Whether it is practiced on the page or in the classroom, good criticism is a fiendishly difficult craft. People crave explanations of art, insofar as they do, because knowing some context dramatically increases the pleasure art gives us. Just as challenges from science have not in the least lessened the grip of religious belief on people’s psyches, so challenges from empiricist humanists are not going to lessen the grip of aesthetic power. And in the end, reaching towards those fragile works of mastery and genius is the work we’re called on to do. (p. 303)
She goes on to talk about a documentary that Richard Dawkins produced about religion, The Root of All Evil, where Dawkins confronts a very successful preacher, Ted Haggard, about “how he can mislead his congregation so badly” (303). She counters Dawkins by point out that he “misses the point”, that the congregants don’t (304):
come to church for the theology. If the theology helps get them in the right frame of mind, so much the better. But really they come for the emotional pleasure, pleasure that the swirling lights and the loud music and the us- versus-them rhetoric help to trigger.
Yes. She then goes on to observe (304):
Theory has taken hold in humanities departments because it is (or was) a branch of theology, not science. Its explanatory aims are finally subordinate to its emotive ones: it gives people energy and the will to do the work. Theory has been more or less overtly driven by a liberationist agenda—and it has developed strong resemblances to religious cults, in which powerful gurus dispense dogma and their disciples disseminate it. Some theory-centered disciplines make this more or less explicit. Take feminist studies. Feminist studies has been driven explicitly by a liberationist agenda but it has signally refused to address—in fact has been entirely contemptuous of—the mounting evidence that there are significant hormonal, neurological, and cognitive differences between the sexes. If you can’t admit the question, you aren’t a discipline.
I think that’s right as well. Theory in its many varieties IS driven by a liberationist agenda.

So what? Remember that Vermeule is responding to an article in which Joseph Carroll has set out a case for literary Darwinism, and she is deeply sympathetic to those ideas. But how do they meet the discipline’s need for expressing a liberationist agenda? (They don’t.)

The Case of Cornel West

Vermeule’s perplexity brought to mind the case of Cornel West at Harvard. Shortly after Lawrence Summers assumed the presidency of Harvard in 2000 he had a meeting with West “where he reportedly rebuked West for missing too many classes, contributing to grade inflation, neglecting serious scholarship, and spending too much time on his economically profitable projects” (Wikipedia). That’s a whole raft of supposed academic misconduct of which I have no direct knowledge, except for the charge that West had ceased scholarly production. West left Harvard in 2002 for Princeton and then, in 2012, left Princeton for Union Theological Seminary. A few years before the Summers controversy I’d read enough of West’s work to be convinced that: 1) he was brilliant, widely read, and had done important intellectual work (I’m thinking of The American Evasion of Philosophy), and 2) he was no longer doing much scholarship.

West has clearly chosen expressive intellectual activity over analytic and theoretical and he is certainly committed to a liberationist agenda. I’m not sure that any contemporary literary scholars have achieved a level of public visibility comparable to West’s. Stanley Fish’s op-ed column in The New York Times, gave him some reach, but not, I think comparable to West. The a late Edward Said was visible as well, and, unlike Fish, had liberationist aims, but was he as visible as West?

The answer doesn’t matter. What’s important is the question raised: Is there a proper role in the university for the West’s style of intellectual activity, even on a less visible scale. And, in fact, West’s very visibility gets in the way of the issue that Vermeule raised which, you’ll recall, is why I’m discussing him. Any university, of whatever stature, could use West’s visibility to justify his presence on the faculty. But how do would you justify the expressive and liberationist activities of literary critics, few of whom will ever have that kind of public presence?

Before addressing that issue I’d like to mention a discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter that was triggered by an article in The New Republic in which Eric Michael Dyson took West to task.

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, May 26, 2015:

Ethical Criticism in the Academy

In a way the simplest response to these issues is to assert that, no, Cornel West has no place in the academy and, no, neither does expressionist liberationist literary criticism. The academy is a place for disciplined study. Period.

I might be able to convince myself of that, but I’m not sure I should. That’s in part why I’ve been advocating that we explicitly allow value judgments back into literary criticism, after having ostensibly banned them in the middle of the last century, and recognize ethnical criticism as one fully legitimate branch of literary study, with naturalist criticism as another branch. Naturalist critics pursue objective knowledge of literary phenomena. Ethical critics are concerned with ethos, how we live, and should be free to pursue that interest in expressive ways.

Moreover, I rather suspect that ethical criticism is what undergraduate students most want and need from literary study, especially those students who have no intention of majoring in literature or in pursuing graduate study. We should give it to them, but explicitly and above board, rather than disguising it as critique so to smuggle it in under the ban on value judgments.

What do I mean by that? Well, I’m just now making it up, and it’s just a bit convoluted. Consider a passage from Rita Felski’s current working paper, Doing the Humanities with Bruno Latour. She is arguing for criticism, as opposed to critique. Note that I am assuming that her “critique” designates roughly the same body of practice as Vermeule’s “Theory”. Here’s the passage (pp. 8-9):
Critique, in fact, often insists on its difference from mere criticism, understood as disagreement or objection, by underscoring its superior vantage point and epistemology. In traditional ideology critique, this is a matter of contrasting the illusions or delusions of others to the critic’s access to truth; in poststructuralist critique, techniques of troubling and problematizing now signal the critic’s self-reflexive distance from the naïve or literal beliefs of others. In both cases, though, we see the methodological asymmetry that characterizes critique. Ideas that scholars object to or disagree with are traced back to hidden structures of which actors themselves remain unaware—ideological, psychic, linguistic, social. Critique itself, however, remains the ultimate horizon—it is not an object to be contextualized, but the ultimate context: a synonym for rigorous and radical thought. Hence the deeply asymmetrical nature of the discourse of critique: “I speak truth to power while you are a pawn of neo-liberal interests.”

I am not persuaded by these claims to epistemological superiority and believe we would do better to jettison the concept of critique—with its halo of rigor and radicalism—and to admit that we are engaged in objecting and disagreeing. Meanwhile, we would also benefit from exploring styles of criticism more willing to combine disagreement with empathy, that are more dialogic and less diagnostic. It is hardly sufficient, for example, to explain away attitudes one does not agree with by invoking the nefarious force of ideologies and isms. This kind of analysis —which portrays one’s opponents as being driven by hidden structures that only the critical theorist can penetrate—speaks about others rather than to them, in the discourse of the vanguard. Criticism can only hope to engage others—rather than chastise or admonish others¬–if it is also willing to put itself in their shoes.
What I’m suggesting is that critique’s air of epistemological superiority has arisen because criticism, as Felski describes it, has been banned. In effect: If we cannot make value judgments about lifeways, about aesthetic values, then we’ll go ahead a make those judgments anyhow, but disguise them as the inevitable conclusions of a superior way of knowing.

OK, so, let us admit value judgment back into the literary academy. Once again literary criticism can actually be critical, legitimately and above board. This will, of course, require changes in what kind of work can be published.

And I think legitimizing ethical criticism will require more than that. I think it will require that literary critics in the academy reach out to the general public in ways that that weren’t possible before the web. Many literary scholars have been actively blogging for years, which is an excellent way to reach general audiences. This should be regarded as an important aspect of their professional activity, not just as something, a hobby, that they’re doing on their own time. This requires institutional changes, and those are as difficult to negotiate as intellectual changes.

Not every critic can be a Cornel West or, for that matter, a Lionel Trilling. We don’t need cohorts of critics chasing large public audiences. That’s a game that has few winners. What we need are critics who are willing to engage with real readers outside the classroom. If a large number of such critics each engages a small number of readers – and that’s all we can realistically expect – that may well transform the literary academy, both in reality, and in public image.

Note, finally, that I am not advocating that all academic literary criticism be ethical criticism. As I’ve already indicated, I continue to believe that literary academics should pursue objective knowledge of literary phenomena. But that pursuit needs revivification as well. Whether or not the literary academy is willing to be transformed, that’s another issue.

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