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Part Three: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 23, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  James Seaton is a good friend.  He and I began corresponding roughly a decade ago, and we first met in person about six years ago at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.  His edition of Santayana had just come out with Yale University Press, and he was there to give a lecture on it.  Seaton opens his essay for your volume with the following sentence:  “Neither Henry James nor George Santayana were active participants in the politics of their time.”  Don’t you think there’s something inherently conservative in this very distance from one’s own cultural and political moment?  I’m thinking of Kirk’s admonition that conservatism is about the rejection of ideology. 

MZ:  It was actually James Seaton who, some time ago, in an innocuous but characteristically trenchant review of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in The Weekly Standard, provided for me the framework for thinking deeply about literature’s authenticity and its exploitation by postmodern criticism. I very regrettably lacked a lot of exposure to more traditional approaches to literature and, while I instinctively eschewed the most obscure theoretics, I remained unaware that the critic could do more than scamper around the edges of territory claimed by Jürgen Habermas and Paul de Man. To Kirk’s point, I think I had always rejected the ideology – I just wasn’t fully aware that there might be a viable alternative to it.

I do think there is something to be said for one’s distance from the cultural and political moment. The conservative disposition doesn’t really lend itself well to the act of politics, and this is perhaps why conservatives have been consistently rolled in nearly every public debate over culture for the last half-century. Being always on the defensive and lacking the language to explain the intuitive – Lee Harris calls this the “visceral code” – puts the conservative at a rhetorical, if not moral, disadvantage. For me, the everyday analogy to Seaton’s statement is the conservative tendency to focus on the admittedly prosaic underpinnings of civic life – largely the familial and the associational. As we are witnessing with the ever-increasing presence of the state in the daily lives of individuals, the absence of participation in politics by those whose disposition might be called “conservative” is conspicuous.

AM:  I remember where I was when I read Seaton’s review that you mention. In his book Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism, in the context of remarks about E. D. Hirsch, he says that “’[c]ultural literacy’ would be particularly valuable for those now termed the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ in achieving individual economic mobility,” and he adds that the “spread of cultural literacy would also promote political democracy, since discussion can only take place on the basis of at least some shared assumptions and common vocabulary.”  Do you agree with this?

 MZ: I would agree wholeheartedly. There has been much invested, however, in facilitating a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it has been inadvertent, but much of it has not. As reflexive relativism has taken hold, any semblance of commonality has been superseded by historical moral equivalencies. Consequently, we are left with little more than recriminations and collective guilt. Western culture perhaps has much to atone for, but past transgressions cannot be the sole basis for self-definition. There just may be certain shared values and traditions that could serve as the basis for a common culture and a source of pride, but it is often more expedient to assign particular beliefs and behaviors to discrete and easily identifiable groups.

This may be cynical, but I think there is much to be gained politically – the recent election notwithstanding – from the veneration of difference. I’m not sure the individual is or ever has been truly dignified when human worth is either enhanced or degraded by how that individual is situated during any given cultural moment. It is difficult to argue that this is not what is happening now, at least to some degree. Perhaps by expanding our very narrow conceptions of diversity, we would have a much greater chance of constructive dialogue, which might then enact a more conscientious effort to promote this notion of cultural literacy. The deliberately false promise that multiculturalism is the surest path to unity and a common, mutual understanding has generated much confusion and it has, against its fundamental premise, created self-defeating forms of tribalism. The multiculturalist program has sought to validate rather than engage and evaluate global cultures, and its underside has been the raw factionalizing that consumes so much public discourse.

AM:  It is interesting and bothersome to see how multiculturalism has degenerated into a monolithic orthodoxy, which is by its very form and function against diversity, not for it.  I wonder what would happen if we exposed more students to political theory in the vein of Michael Polanyi of F. A. Hayek, thinkers whose intelligence and theoretical sophistication have to be taken seriously by those who study literary theory and criticism.  The forms of devolution and subsidiarity advocated by these men might provide challenges to the prevailing consensus among many students and teachers in English departments about the kind of ideas motivating certain figures on the right.

 MZ:  I do believe that radical multiculturalism militates against diversity, and in this regard the university has failed in one of its stated core missions. The failure to cultivate an inclusive campus community has been made evident not only by civil disobedience and other visible forms of unrest, but also by the imposition of predictable bureaucratic programs aimed at solving problems that the administrative bureaucracy has itself made worse. Obsessing about difference and instituting special privileges for certain groups, and then pontificating about equality just seems disingenuous. Current narratives on race as well as the devaluing of our common culture have been toxic for the university, as a lot of students, I think rightly, feel as though justice in this context is punitive. If there is any palpable hostility to the learning process or to intellectual climate on today’s typical campus, perhaps we as the academy should look inward rather than to historical prejudices that we can conveniently circle back to after having tried to address all of them through administrative means and a thoroughly politicized curriculum.

Moreover, as politics has regrettably become a proxy for character, even reasoned opposition to progressive ideals, particularly on the campus, is delegitimized and discounted as having been informed by sinister motives. I argue in the book that too often conservative ideas are either ignored by their critics or deliberately distorted so as to identify an enemy against which the social justice war may be fought. There is ample evidence of this, and I hesitate to identify any one event or episode to draw conclusions. Yet I recently find myself coming back to a video passed along to me that recorded the Young Americas Foundation at the University of Kansas being aggressively confronted at one of their meetings by protesters. What strikes me in that video is that the person behind the camera seems to be officiating the ensuing debate, commenting on and critiquing every gesture or utterance made by members of the YAF group, essentially flagging them for violations of rules to which they never agreed. The concept of civil discourse is applied so lopsidedly that only one set of ideas is allowed to prevail. I think this is by design, even though, as you suggest, a serious consideration of conservative ideas and philosophies would broaden minds and better prepare us all for the responsibilities of civic life.

AM:  Do you worry about our habits of reading in our technological and digital age?  I recall Harold Bloom once saying that we all read “against the clock.”  Readers of the Bible, he says, read with more urgency than, say, readers of Shakespeare, but there’s always the problem of the limitations of time: Life just isn’t long enough for us to read everything worth reading.  Thinking about that has sometimes led me into a feeling of existential angst, especially after I spent a few years on a self-imposed reading diet that included the consumption of a canonical work from Western Civilization per week.  When I finished the program each year, I was distraught at how little I’d actually read.  I’m concerned that we’re wasting a lot of precious time reading texts that just aren’t that fulfilling or edifying. 

MZ:  The reading project you describe is an ambitious one. I merely committed to reading a page of Waugh every day this year, and I couldn’t even do that. On a related note, a current depressing irony for me is that I have volume I of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sitting on my shelf, and I have spent precious minutes staring at it, wondering if I could actually ever get through all 7 volumes. There are a lot of reasons for our society’s detachment from literature, and reading has definitely been made very difficult in the digital age. The sheer amount of available information is daunting, and it has led to a frenetic search for the quick, easy, and thereby ungratifying.

I think, though, that while the internet has shifted our ability to focus and perhaps even changed how our brains process information, it has also caused a loss of discipline. It appeals to human nature to swipe to the next task if something becomes intellectually difficult, and this is made almost compulsory by technology, especially for those young people who have been immersed in it almost literally from day 1. Maybe I’m just projecting, though. I struggle with it as well, and I also find myself often wondering, in this day and age of always needing to be busy, how much we all might benefit from slowing down and reading a little Austen.

AM:  This has been a fun interview for me.  One last question: are you working on any projects right now that readers should know about?

MZ:  Thanks, Allen, for the opportunity to talk with you. I have enjoyed it as well. I have shifted my research focus a bit from literature toward the state of the university more generally. Editing Literature and the Conservative Ideal prompted much thought about the future of higher education and the increasing importance of broad-mindedness on the campus.

I am currently editing a collection for Rowman & Littlefield tentatively titled Remaking the University: Liberal Learning, the West, and the Revival of American Higher Education. I am also in discussions to publish a separate volume entitled Defending the West: Finding Culture and Common Humanity in the Postmodern Age. Both books seek to build on a long tradition of support for free expression and the pursuit of truth as well as Western culture’s influence on both. After our discussion, though, I am realizing I might need to just be doing a bit more reading.

AM:  We all need that.  Thanks for the interview, Mark.

Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.

 

Part Two coming soon….

Paul H. Fry on “The Postmodern Psyche”

In Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 1, 2015 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry on “Jacques Lacan in Theory”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization on January 14, 2015 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Review of James Seaton’s “Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 31, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review first appeared here in The University Bookman.

Back when I was a pimple-faced graduate student in English and law, I ordered a book from Amazon titled Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies. The book had been out awhile, but I had only recently come across an intriguing piece by its author, James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University. I read my purchase in earnest and then dashed off a complimentary email to Seaton days later. He responded, and we struck up a dialogue that continued for several years. I once visited him at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, where he spoke to a small crowd about George Santayana. He had just edited two of Santayana’s seminal essays for Yale University Press and had recruited Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball to contribute to the edition. We got along swimmingly, and Annette Kirk ensured that he and I had time alone to discuss whether I should apply to a doctoral program in English or continue down the path of the law.

Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism has all the themes and qualities that first drew me to Seaton. It is a collection of Seaton’s latest essays and reviews revised and synthesized into a comprehensive case for humanistic inquiry. Amplifying his arguments from Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism and reformulating his principles about the value of literature to society, Seaton continues to undercut the discipline of cultural studies, which he decries for its “obligatory leftism.” His leading contribution—the subject about which he stands to forge new directions in the field of literary criticism—is to revitalize old contributions, namely, the humanistic tradition as defined by Irving Babbitt and as represented by Aristotle, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison. Chapters Two and Four are profitable beginnings of this project because they explain which critics (William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and which schools of criticism (Romanticism, Marxism, and the New Criticism) fall outside the humanistic tradition. These chapters, Four especially, are exciting, provocative, and significant. They supply the basis and much of the substance for the rest of the book and suggest that literature is not an agent of ideology, nor literary theory a master key that unlocks the door to grand solutions for political, scientific, and economic problems.

For those who are uninterested or unversed in literary criticism, however, reading Seaton will be like watching strategic athletic maneuvers—swing! parry! dive!—without a sense of what’s at stake in a sporting match whose tactics and rules are unknown. From the start he frames his argument with Plato and Aristotle, but today’s graduate students in English will be unclear what these men mean for the larger project of humanism or why they matter to contemporary audiences. With the exception of the Norton anthologies, most accounts of literary criticism in popular anthologies begin with Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century or with the New Critics in the early twentieth. The pinnacle of influence for these late critics roughly coincides with the development of English departments as institutions. To begin at the beginning—with the Greeks—will disorient those trained to look back at the literary canon through the prism of “contemporary” theories.

This remark is not a reproach of Seaton but of current literary studies; the chief merit of Seaton’s methodology is to demystify literary studies and to affirm there’s nothing new under the sun: the latest theories have definite antecedents (not necessarily good ones) and can be mapped by their continuity with other methodologies. Marxists of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse, for example, follow in the wake of Plato: “Just as Plato had insisted on the necessity of censorship in his ideal Republic, Marcuse argued that suppression of free speech was required in the twentieth century for the establishment of what he considered true freedom.”

Seaton’s knack for classification emerges forcefully in the opening chapter. Here he arranges under three heads the whole history of literary criticism: the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, and the Aristotelian. He defines literary criticism as “a continuing conversation” among these three traditions inspired by just two Greek men. Adhering to the third category, the Aristotelian, which he calls humanistic, Seaton rejects the first because it questions the aesthetic value of literature, distrusts the sensory effects of literature, and treats great works as mere symptoms of ideological structures or institutions. “The philosophy of the Republic,” Seaton explains, “leaves no room for judging poetry according to literary excellence; all that counts is its political and social impact.” Seaton rejects the second, the Neoplatonic, for defending literature and poetry on the narrow and quixotic “basis of the moral and spiritual elevation it made possible.”

By contrast, Seaton submits, the “humanistic view of literature” might be “a middle way between the Platonic condemnation of art and literature and the Neoplatonic elevation.” The humanistic view “remains Aristotelian” because it considers “literature as a source of insight about human life” and is willing “to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” While Plato would expel poetry and theater from his ideal Republic, segregate poetry from philosophy, and train his Guardians to submit their virtues to the service of the State, Aristotle calls for “individual judgment about the literary merit and relevance to human life of particular works from audiences and certainly from would-be critics.” Neoplatonist overstatement about the manner in which “poetry brings us closer to the divine” also finds no place in Aristotelian humanism, which modestly maintains that literature “can tell us important things about human life but little about the universe.” Humanists write of the person as the person: they turn to literature to learn and to teach how to live well and wisely without fancying transcendental essences or utopian abstraction. The very crux of Aristotelian humanism is that “the importance of literature is linked to the significance of human life itself,” not to the political, ideological, or religious convictions that a work of literature implicates.

The triadic paradigm (Aristotelian, Platonist, Neoplatonist) may seem reductive, and indeed it is, but such reduction establishes recognizable classifications that encompass a diversity of interests and approaches while shaping a vocabulary for arranging distinctive properties into taxonomies to set apart certain authors and texts. Despite his skill for categorizing and simplifying schools of literary criticism, Seaton is steadfast that literary criticism is distinct in function and form from science: the former is as much an art as the art it explicates, whereas the latter is an empirical discipline that ascertains the natural rules of the phenomenal world by gathering and testing concrete data, building consensus among experts, and denominating general propositions to describe observable events. The contrast is not as sharp or essentialist as I have portrayed it—the pragmatic tradition of Peirce, James, and Santayana falls somewhere between art and science—but the fact that literary criticism has splintered into innumerable, contradictory schools suggests that the disparate methods and judgments of literary critics are not derived from shared conditions or by recourse to the same techniques.

Criticism of the humanistic variety championed by Seaton is found today not in academic journals but in popular literary reviews and journals such as this one. It has the important civic function of educating and inspiring mass audiences. Humanism rejects the “implicit promise” of cultural studies “that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.” Humanism, instead, engages in public debate without resorting to naked polemics; its practitioners understand or at least appreciate the complexity of the cultural norms and standards of readers outside the ivory tower. Professors in the academy, on the other hand, disconnected from the lifestyles and manners and conventions of the general public, tend to write themselves into little corners, retreating from the potential scrutiny of educated laypeople and insisting that true scholarship “requires specialization on topics specific enough to allow for the production of new knowledge, not open-ended conversation about questions to which no definitive answer is possible.” Seaton’s model of humanism advocates a different errand: “to make available to the larger culture the testimony of literature on human life … by accurately assessing the literary merit of the witness.”

They waste it that do state it with no style. Seaton, accordingly, makes short work of the “dominant theorizing” that lacks “literary distinction,” and he does so with his own unique style that remains as accessible to the educated layperson as it is to professional scholars of literature. His is not the delightfully repetitious, grandstanding prose of a Harold Bloom or Richard Poirier—the type of prose that, in its very makeup, shouts down the technical writing of hyper-professionalized humanities scholarship. Yet Seaton can turn a phrase with the best of them. Although it is a subsidiary point, the notion that a critic should write in a mode many people will enjoy is the literary equivalent to popular sovereignty: the common reader, not the expert, ought to determine which works continue to be read and therefore which become canonized. Like his guides Ralph Ellison and Dwight Macdonald, Seaton, mindful of his audience, takes pains to avoid jargon even as he discusses such theorists as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno whose writing is riddled with esoterica.

Seaton ends with a hopeful note: “Although the task of addressing the arguments of the dominant contemporary theories is important, the decisive answer [to the question what to do now that the dominant theories dismiss the importance of literature to life and thought] will come from the literary criticism of the twenty-first century that conveys to the general public the pleasures and insights that poems, plays, and fiction continue to make available to all those willing to attend.” Let’s hope the coming decades yield critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, who were “members of a humanistic tradition capacious enough to study the connections between literature and society while also insisting that poems, plays, and novels should be judged on their own merits as works of art.”

It isn’t that the political and social sphere should be off-limits to critics, only that critics should, as Seaton does, subordinate their political and social presuppositions to aesthetic judgments, the most discerning of which account for the value of imaginative literature to plain living and high thinking. The best criticism helps us to understand how literature makes life better, more meaningful, and more fulfilling. Simple as it sounds, this proposition is tremendously complex because of the tremendous complexity of life itself. Held to his own high standards, Seaton succeeds: his chapters force you to consider what role literature has played in your own development, and how that role might play out in the lives of others. Good literature is more than a material object; it’s a way of living, a crucial check on those who purport to know it all with utter certainty.

Paul H. Fry on Deconstruction, Part II

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Epistemology, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Semiotics, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 12, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the ninth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry on Deconstruction, Part I

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, Teaching, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 1, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the eighth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Žižek and Agamben’s Homo Sacer

In Arts & Letters, Books, Humanities, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“The problem with Rumsfeld’s blunt statement [that the American goal was to kill as many Taliban soldiers and al-Qaeda members as possible], as with other similar phenomena like the uncertain status of the Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, is that they seem to point directly to Agamben’s distinction between the full citizen and Homo sacer who, although he or she is alive as a human being, is not part of the political community.”

                   —Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Whatever else it is, Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy is anti-authoritarian and anti-totalitarianism.  Slavoj Žižek draws from Agamben to round out Welcome to the Desert of the Real.  Specifically, Žižek draws from Agamben’s theories about homo sacer and “the state of exception,” the latter of which Agamben borrows from the German jurisprudent Carl Schmitt.  In his book Homo Sacer, Agamben adopts Pompeius Festus’ definition of homo sacer as “the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime,” and the one who cannot be sacrificed, but can be killed without legal consequence.[1]

Agamben suggests that homo sacer is bound up with notions of sovereignty.  Sovereignty is determined by what is included and what is excluded from the jurisdiction of a sovereign.  Although a sovereign has the power to suspend the validity of law and, therefore, to stand outside the law, the sovereign may lose that privilege and become the sacred man who no longer has rights granted and secured by the polis, and who may be killed, but not sacrificed.  According to this paradigm, the sovereign is a man—a king or a monarch—who embodies statehood and sovereignty.  The body of this man is itself the site of law so long as the man remains the sovereign; as soon as the man is no longer sovereign, his body ceases to be the site of the law.

Žižek seems less concerned with the idea of sovereignty implicated by the term homo sacer.  He focuses, instead, on the “outsider,” “fugitive,” or “noncitizen” aspect of homo sacer.  He defines today’s homo sacer as “the privileged object of humanitarian biopolitics: the one who is deprived of his or her full humanity being taken care of in a very patronizing way.”  Žižek’s examples of today’s homo sacer include John Walker, the American who fought with the Taliban; the sans papers in France; the inhabitants of the favelas in Brazil; people in the African-American ghettos in the United States; an American war plane flying above Afghanistan; and others.  None of these examples describes groups or persons who once enjoyed the power of a sovereign.  All of these groups or persons have in common an ambiguous status in relation to the law of the polis.

Žižek shares with Agamben the notion that homo sacer is, or can be, the embodiment of the state of exception: the one who is excluded from the polis, who neither makes laws nor enjoys the protection of laws.  By sidestepping Agamben’s proposition that the sovereign body is the constitution of sovereignty—a move that might have to do with Žižek’s criticism of Agamben as wedded to the dialectics of the Enlightenment and to Foucault’s disciplinary power or biopower—Žižek is able to raise profound and troubling questions about the status of every one of us regarding homo sacer.  He asks, for instance, “What if the true problem is not the fragile status of the excluded but, rather, the fact that, on the most elementary level, we are all ‘excluded’ in the sense that our most elementary, ‘zero’ position is that of an object of biopolitics, and that possible political and citizenship rights are given to us as a secondary gesture, in accordance with biopolitical strategic considerations?”  Žižek does not answer this question, but the answer, disturbing as it is, seems implied in the question.


[1] Giorgio Agamben.  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.  Stanford University Press, 1995.  Pg. 71.

Žižek’s Real Desert

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

In short, America should learn humbly to accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation—what we are getting instead is the forceful reassertion of the exceptional role of the USA as a global policeman, as if what causes resentment against the USA is not its excess of power, but its lack of it. 

                             —Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Žižek does not overload his writing with normative statements.  Here, however, he clearly puts forth an “ought.”  He recommends that America accept its vulnerability.  What is not said in this sentence, but what is abundantly clear throughout the second chapter of Welcome to the Desert of the Real, is that accepting vulnerability represents, for Žižek, an alternate way between “the dialectical category of totality.”

Against the prevailing rhetoric that deludes Americans and other Western peoples into thinking that they have two choices—between “Them” or “Us,” “Capitalism” or “The Other,” “Inside” or “Outside,” “First World” or “Third World”—Žižek attempts more than merely to reveal a third-way between competing totalities.  He seeks instead to interrogate the competing totalities and to show how they are narrativized to mask the symptoms of our own desires.  He demonstrates that “We” have constructed our own fundamentalisms that oppose—yet mirror—the fundamentalisms of “The Other.”  There is an evil to both sides of whatever lies beneath constructed dualities; only by searching for that evil can we place 9/11 in its proper context.  The totalities of “Them” versus “Us,” for example, can be redefined such that Bush and Bin Laden “are both ‘Them’ against Us.”  The point of this recasting is to suggest that 9/11 and its aftermath do not represent grand moral narratives leading inexorably to a clear choice: for or against terrorism.  Rather, 9/11 and its aftermath are what upset America’s perception of itself as “an island exempt from this kind of violence, witnessing it only from the safe distance of the TV screen.”  9/11 was a wake-up to reality, not to morality.

For this reason, 9/11 and its aftermath ought to blur any simple claims to moral superiority as well as any ideological interpretation of the deaths of the victims.  9/11 did not bring about ethical or ideological clarity.  “Far from offering a case apropos of which we can adopt a clear ethical stance,” Žižek asserts, “we encounter here the limit of moral reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime.”

But few people are innocent, at least if innocence means completely removed from any system that is complicit in the rise of violence and extremism; nearly everyone is implicated in some system or another that contributed (and contributes) to the rise of fundamentalism.  To construct a crude “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative is to create a false abstraction that validates the very behavior that generated the hostility motivating the crimes to begin with.  To construct that narrative is to placate personal guilt and to shield “Us” from identification with “The Problem.”

Because of these arguments, Welcome to the Desert of the Real disrupts the apparent unity of the dialectical categories that Americans and other Western peoples accept uncritically.  It challenges the images and stories that seem to have as their goal the legitimation of violence.  Whatever one thinks of Žižek—I am, for the record, not a fan—his arguments in this book deserve careful consideration.

The Major Move of Deconstruction

In Arts & Letters, Epistemology, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Postmodernism, Western Philosophy on January 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“Every concept is necessarily and essentially inscribed in a chain or a system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences.  Such a play, then—difference—is no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general.  […] Within a language, within the system of language, there are only differences.  A taxonomic operation can accordingly undertake its systematic, statistical, and classificatory inventory.”

—Jacques Derrida, “Differance”

The major move of deconstruction is to interrogate binary oppositions in Western thought (good/evil, man/woman, black/white, right/wrong, and so on) to determine how certain ideas have gained credence over others (by social construction).  Derrida deals with signification and the inability of the sign to signify the referent because of the constant chain of deferred meaning—that is to say, the constant slippage between articulations or representations of the thing and the thing as it exists in the phenomenal world.  Put another way, the slippage is between the production of difference without origin and the actual quality of the referent that precedes thought and articulation.  Derrida gives this slippage the name “differance,” a hybrid and invented term that implicates what he elsewhere calls “metaphysics of presence.”

Derrida draws on the dualisms of Western and Platonic philosophy to suggest that all concepts are understood by their inverse.  If all concepts are understood by their inverse, then any understanding of an inverse concept necessarily depends upon another inverse concept.  Every opposing concept is itself intelligible because of additional opposing concepts, and no concept is absolute or transcendental such that it has no inverse; therefore, the search for an origin of meaning reveals that there are only networks of differences, each of which has been produced by humans.  There is no starting or stopping point to this constant deferral of meaning, or what Derrida calls “a chain or system.”  There is, in other words, no pure present.

Meaning, although never present in the sense of being fixed in time and space, resides in whatever taxonomic operation has created and arranged signifiers that humans use to communicate and mobilize.  Language and codes constitute and utilize systems of difference, even if language and codes cannot realize some transcendental signifier.  The most that language and codes can realize is the trace of a presence.  Derrida refers to this strategic realization as, among other things, “protowriting,” an economical exercise that enables humans to convey messages, but that does not bring about an organic unity of meaning.

All positive understanding of words or things comes through negation: the devaluing of one inverse and the privileging of another.  When Derrida says (above) that the play of difference is “no longer a concept,” but the “possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general,” he is hinting at this social constitution of words and their value of exchange.  Even if “there are only differences” in a system of language or meaning, humans still harness certain concepts in the service of certain ends.  Humans are not paralyzed by difference; indeed, difference might even enable human action.  It is the aim of deconstruction—which is in principle a value neutral methodology and not a crusading ideology—to show how humans have dealt with difference and organized around (and because of) certain significations that privilege some concepts (or sets of concepts) over other concepts (or sets of concepts).

 

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