Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem

tags: education, humanities

Eric Bennett is an associate professor of English at Providence College.

... 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 midcentury 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.

Then, starting in the 1970s, autonomy became a custom honored only in the breach. Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were first among countless equals who argued that pure art was pure politics. In 1985, Jane Tompkins laid out what many scholars increasingly believed about the whole field — that "works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position." Porous boundaries, fluid categories, and demoted reputations redefined classic texts.

Beauty became ideology; poetry, a trick of power, no more essentially valuable than other such tricks — sitcoms, campaign slogans, magazine ads — and no less subject to critique. The focus of the discipline shifted toward the local, the little, the recent, and the demotic. "I find no contradiction in my writing about Henry James, bodybuilding, heavy metal, religion, and psychoanalytic theory," Marcia Ian statedin PMLAin 1997. In Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres(1990), Harriet Hawkins argued that much pop culture "has in practice … been a great deal more democratic and far less elitist, even as it has often been demonstrably less sexist than the academically closeted critical tradition." Within the bosky purlieus of a declining humanism, everything had become fair game for study: Madonna and Lost, Harry Potter and Mad Men.

The demographic exclusivity of the midcentury canon sanctified the insurrection. Who didn’t feel righteous tossing Hawthorne on the bonfire? So many dead white men became so much majestic smoke. But now, decades later, the flames have dwindled to coals that warm the fingers of fewer and fewer majors. The midcentury ideal — of literature as an aesthetically and philosophically complex activity, and of criticism as its engaged and admiring decoding — is gone. In its place stands the idea that our capacity to shape our protean selves is the capacity most worth exercising, the thing to be defended at all costs, and the good that a literary inclination best serves. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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