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Posts Tagged ‘Literary Criticism’

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

Terry Eagleton on the Death of Criticism

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on December 14, 2016 at 6:45 am

The following lecture by Terry Eagleton was delivered at the University of California Berkeley in 2010.

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 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’s “Configurative Reading”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Teaching, Western Philosophy on April 16, 2014 at 8:45 am

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

Law and Literature at the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Conservatism, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on January 14, 2012 at 9:55 am

Allen Mendenhall

The Seventh Annual Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society will take place in Bodrum, Turkey, at the Hotel Karia Princess, from Thursday, September 27, through Monday, October 1, 2012.  Readers of this site may be interested in some of the proposed talks for this event.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Stephan Kinsella will speak on Philosophy and Law.  Professor Hoppe’s paper is titled “The Nature of Man: Does Any Such Thing Exist?”  Mr. Kinsella’s paper is titled “The Market for Law.”

Sean Gabb and Benjamin Marks will speak on Literature and Literary Criticism.  Dr. Gabb’s paper is titled “On Literature and Liberty.”  Mr. Marks’s paper is titled “On H. L. Mencken as a Libertarian Model (and Some Romantic Libertarian Delusions).”

Other literati to speak include Jeffery Tucker, who interviewed me about literature and the economics of liberty and who now is the executive editor for Laissez Faire Books, and Theodore Dalrymple.

 

Excerpt from “Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Conclusion”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Conservatism, Humane Economy, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Politics, Pragmatism, Transnational Law on August 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

A few months ago, the Libertarian Alliance, a London-based think tank, published my paper on transnational law.  Below is an excerpt from that paper.  The piece is available for download through SSRN by clicking here, or on the website of the Libertarian Alliance by clicking here.

In 1957, reviewing Philip Jessup’s Transnational Law, James N. Hyde wrote that “[t]ransnational law is not likely to become a term of art for a new body of law.”25  Mr. Hyde was wrong.  There has been a proliferation of relatively new law journals bearing “transnational law” in their titles: Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems: A Journal of the University of Iowa College of Law, Ashburn Institute Transnational Law Journal, Journal of Transnational Law & Policy, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Transnational Law Review, and Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.  There are LLM programs in transnational law (such as the one I am in), and there are even institutes and think-tanks devoted to the study and development of transnational law.  Transnational law has in fact become the term of art for a new body of law, and here we will consider the nature and meaning of this term as well as the corpus of law it has created.  It is perhaps not coincidental that the emergence of transnational law coincided with transnational poetics26 and other transnational trends in literary criticism because the legal and literary fields always seem responsive to one another.

One of the earliest references, if not the earliest reference, to the concept of transnationalism comes from the pragmatist philosopher and student of John Dewey: Randolph Bourne.  Bourne’s use of the term “transnational” recalls William James’s notion of religious pluralism as non-absolute and non-monist.27  Bourne appears to have revised and extended James’s pragmatism to fit the political instead of the religious or philosophical context, although James himself came close to addressing the former context in “A Pluralistic Universe.”  Bourne’s essay “Trans-National America” regarded transnationalism as a cousin of cultural pluralism, the notion that differences in belief across cultures and communities may not be equally valid but can be at least equally practical.  Against essentialism, monism, and absolutism, Bourne posits a consequentialist system of polycentrism that regards multiplicity as positive and collectivism as dangerous.  Society can and should be multiple and heterogeneous, not single and homogeneous, for a one-size-fits-all polis can only materialize through the stamping out of minority views and through the erasing of distinct, regional cultures.  Put another way, Bourne transforms James’s varieties of religious experience28 into varieties of political experience.

Kenneth Burke, a literary critic, sometime student of pragmatism, and Marxist converted into a non-“ism” altogether, argued later in his life that ideology and fanaticism – by which he meant “the effort to impose one doctrine of motives abruptly upon a world composed of many different motivational situations”29 – were destructive missions incompatible with pluralism or democracy.  Burke, who remained naively critical of the free market, nevertheless refused ideologies as simplifying what cannot be simplified: human behavior.  What Burke did not realize is that free market theories, especially those of the Austrian variety, are not deterministic: they refuse to pigeonhole people or to reduce them to economic calculations; they treat humans as unpredictable and spontaneous and celebrate the sheer variety of human behavior.  My point in referencing Burke is not to systematically demolish his economic preferences but to suggest that his wide-ranging theories have positive implications for our understanding of transnationalism.  One could argue that Bourne and Burke were the earliest expositors of transnationalist theories tied to the practical world and that Jessup and others merely repackaged Bourne and Burke’s dicta.  Regardless of whether Jessup either read or credited Bourne and Burke, the theories emanating from these two literary critics would have been in circulation at Jessup’s moment in history.  Jessup, widely read as he was, probably would have encountered Bourne and Burke’s transnationalism directly or indirectly. Read the rest of this entry »

Law and the Ordinary, by Alexandre Lefebvre

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Jurisprudence, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, News and Current Events, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on April 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Allen Mendenhall

One of my favorite journals, Telos, has published an essay that might interest readers of this site.  The essay, by Alexandre Lefebvre, is titled “Law and the Ordinary: Hart, Wittgenstein, Jurisprudence.”  Here is the abstract:

This essay argues that H. L. A. Hart’s concept of jurisprudence in the first chapter of The Concept of Law is strongly influenced by the relationship that Wittgenstein establishes between ordinary and metaphysical language. The article is divided into three sections. The first section shows how jurisprudence emerges as a denial of ordinary language in its pursuit of a definition of law. The second section traces Hart’s use of ordinary language to identify idleness or emptiness in jurisprudence. The third section presents Hart’s conception of his work as therapeutic in its attempt to lead jurisprudence back to the everyday.

Telos is one of the few literary-theoretical journals that regularly challenges the critical and political orthodoxy that pits itself, ironically, as the unorthodox, progressive, or transgressive.

Indeed, Telos seriously considers repressed, unpopular, and unapproved thoughts and theories. It complicates “conservative” and “liberal” as meaningful categories of discourse.

Having published such controversial authors as Paul Gottfried, Clyde Wilson, Alain de Benoist and others who situate themselves on the right-wing of the political spectrum, Telos is committed to contemplation and speculation, to profound and difficult ideas and not fashionable or typical recitations of mainstream opinions.

The journal has a long history of interrogating and revising critical theory and critiquing culture and society, and it continues to publish notable scholarship in traditions both left and right, although the signifiers left and right are not useful starting points from which to analyze anything that appears in this journal.

Paul Piconne was the founder and long-term editor of Telos.  Piconne died in 2004.  Today the editor is Russell A. Berman.  The only publication as daring and interesting as Telos is Counterpunch, a political newsletter and not an academic journal.  I urge readers of this site to read both Telos and Counterpunch as often and as closely as possible.

Review of John Ernest’s Chaotic Justice (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Dred Scott, Jurisprudence, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism on July 7, 2010 at 2:30 pm

 

John Ernest, Eberly Distinguished Professor of American Literature at West Virginia University, has written a new book, Chaotic Justice, that should appeal to lawyers and law professors alike.  Ernest’s project began with basic research on Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), but over time Ernest realized that, in his words, “I did not know nearly enough about the literary and cultural history on which, according to my doctorate and professional experience, I was supposed to be an expert.”  Ernest found himself “increasingly convinced that we cannot appreciate American literary and cultural history without a deep understanding of nineteenth-century African American literature,” so he set out to gain that understanding and to convey his findings to a wide audience.  Some of the articles he published along the way—in such journals as PMLA, African American Review, American Literature, and Arizona Quarterly—appear in the book, albeit in slightly different form.   

Examining a vast network of authors who shaped the African American literary corpus, Ernest, a critical race theorist, has strong words for those who teach histories and theories about race as a nod toward idealized multiculturalism.  “Too often,” he says, “social progress relating to race is considered to be an approach toward an imagined horizon by which either the color line gradually disappears or an imagined multiculturalist ideal emerges—an escape, in effect, from a social world largely constructed by and long devoted to racial theories and racist practices.”  More harm than good, in other words, will come of a curriculum that celebrates a quixotic post-racial future while overlooking—or, worse, generalizing—about America’s fraught history of racism.      Read the rest of this entry »

A Quick Musing on the Santayana Movement

In Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, Santayana on June 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm

There’s been, of late, a renewal of interest in George Santayana.

Yale University Press recently released The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States (2009), edited by James Seaton.  With contributions by Seaton, Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball, and comprised of two seminal works by Santayana and four critical essays about Santayana, the book, however thin, seeks nothing less than a revamping of “culture.”  That’s because its subject, the enigmatic Santayana, was an aesthete par excellence and, paradoxically if not impossibly, an atheist-Catholic defender of the faith.

Most conservatives remember Santayana from Russell Kirk’s magnum opus, The Conservative Mind.  The original title to that work was The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana.  Santayana’s reputation has receded in importance since Kirk’s landmark book, in part because conservatives have drifted away from the literati while the literati have drifted away from conservatives.      Read the rest of this entry »

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