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Bad Horse


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May
8th
2017

HITALTCAASHR part 3.2: Teaching English: 1987-1990 · 1:03am May 8th

This post is an attempt to fill in a bit of the gap in the history of the Literary Left between 1970 and now, by summarizing trends in (Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford 1989, Davis & Mirabella 1990, Elbow 1990, Leitch 2010, Harbach 2014). It's the last in its "series" of grumpy-old-man rants. It doesn't conclude anything; it summarizes trends.


Paranoid Hegemony

The Literary Left had by 1989 settled into a siege mentality, believing they were still trying to infiltrate the English departments they had already conquered. This attitude recurs throughout (Davis 1990). Quoting again from the introduction:

In a mere 20 years [since 1970] America, among other countries, has gone from a time of involvement and commitment in which the very fabric of state power was unraveling to an era in which the state has consolidated its strength, manufactured consensus, defused dissent, and raised high the ability of ideology to neutralize action and opposition. [p. 1]

Although things may appear grim, there is hope. This anthology... addresses the concrete achievements of the radical left in academia. There has been a substantial body of political scholarship assembled over the past 20 years.… It is now possible to teach courses on gender, race, class, and ideology that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago…. These are some positive accomplishments, but there is obviously a long way to go. [p. 5]

The American left felt like it was under siege in 1990 because the US had had radical right-wing Republican presidents since 1980. The Secretary of Education under Reagan was William Bennett. He was a caricature of the Reaganite conservative, interested in restoring the classics and religion to education, fighting drugs, crime, and terrorism, and writing sappy patriochristian books like The Book of Virtues. The Republican administration no doubt seemed at the time like a threat.

If, however, you look at the publications in (Leitch 2010), you'll see that 74 of the 80 entries written after 1959 are leftist, phenomenologist, post-modernist, about race or gender oppression, or multi-culturalist / post-colonialist. The book spans the time from 500 B.C. to 2004 A.D., but 52 of its 178 entries are from 1970-1989. There are twice as many entries from the 1970s as from the 1960s, and more than twice as many from the 1980s as from the 1990s. By the 1990s, post-modernism and the basic paradigms of oppression were pretty well played out, and people had to start looking for new variations like intersectionalism and information-technology metaphors for oppression. So far from being a time of conservative domination of literary theory, the years 1970-1989 were the high water mark of the Literary Left's productivity. Either 1960 until the present was a period of a total hegemony of the left, or whatever other views there were have now been erased from history.

The book's final chapter is an autobiographical story of despair by prominent Marxist English professor Louis Kampf, recounting a case in which he claims a professor was denied tenure for being a feminist. "My colleagues could not officially say that a feminist doing women's studies was not to be taken seriously, but reasons would be found." (p. 306) I suppose it's possible that there was pressure against feminists doing women's studies in the English department at MIT in 1989, but it couldn't have been very strong, as they had offered a degree in Women's Studies since 1984.

Kampf's interior monologue is in the voice of a paranoid schizophrenic: "The features of one colleague, a woman, are masked by a permanent smile which threatens to crack her jaw; I'm sure it will be there the moment Bush presses the atomic button. We are the guardian of the eternal verities, yet never speak our private truths…. Students scramble by me in the halls. One who has the maddened eyes of Alexander Haig tries to stare me down. I wonder how many will comply with the planning of nuclear holocaust or the economic strangulation of millions." Had it been a white male Republican seeking tenure so that he could fight to preserve the traditional canon, would Kampf have evaluated him on his merits?


Equality, Not Excellence

When the NCTE convened for 3 weeks in the summer of 1987 to discuss what K-12 and college English should be teaching, Chester Finn, a Department of Education Reagan lackey, urged them to endorse E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, allegedly a call to return to the classical canon (I haven't read it). Finn's politically-oily overselling only united the teachers against his point of view (Elbow p. 16, Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford p. viii). Unless, of course, they were united already.

The conference summary and commentary, published in (Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford 1989, Elbow 1990), show that while the left had not yet turned K-12 consciously Marxist, it was leftist. Both books view the classroom using an unspoken class-struggle model in which students who perform well are treated as the privileged bourgeoisie of the schoolroom. All students are assumed to have equal ability; separating students by ability merely "denies 'low-track' students the 'types of instruction most highly associated with achievement'" (LJ & L p. 40). Underperforming students are seen as underprivileged, ethnically discriminated against (LJ & L p. 40), or as members of a different learning culture. The books emphasize repeatedly the necessity of "making literacy a possibility for all students" (LJ & L p. xx), and the importance of focusing education on the needs of the students performing the most poorly.

High-performing students, by contrast, were viewed with suspicion. Authors dismiss them as advantaged, as benefitting from culturally-biased tests, as poorly socialized, and as not actually being gifted at all. They are assumed not to have any needs of their own. Testing students and giving them single numeric scores on assignments, or especially on IQ tests, and sorting them into groups by performance level, are seen as a form of oppression or class warfare, and are strongly condemned in both books. The pre-1960s view of education, as an investment by society in its own future, was gone completely, replaced by the left's view of education as being concerned only with bringing the performance of low-achievers up to equal that of high-achievers. Equality had replaced excellence as the goal.

The teachers were not unconscious of this; using the word "excellence" had become a sign of being an elitist bourgeois, and it is used almost exclusively in the pejorative: "Tracking seems to promote a narrowly defined norm of excellence in American culture" (Elbow p. 46), "Normative assessment, in other words, automatically constrains how much "excellence" you can have" (Elbow p. 159). "Highland Park Elementary School, 1977, is neither a metaphor for educational excellence nor a symbol for a golden age" (Elbow p. 174; Highland Park is being held up as an exemplary school), "We see the same principle in literary evaluation when we try to decide which literary figures or works are better than others along some single continuum of excellence" (Elbow p. 248, in an argument against numeric grades). The word "gifted" is used to challenge the notion that some students are gifted as a myth (Elbow, "Democracy Through Language", p. 36), to condemn gifted and talented programs for isolating gifted students from the virtuous proletariat their peers, who will socialize them (Elbow, "The Story of David & His Experience With Tracking", p. 44-46), to argue that placing the learning disabled in regular classrooms makes everyone learn faster (Elbow, "Scott's Gift", p. 141-147), and to challenge standardized tests as inaccurate ("Goals and Testing", p. 157). [4]

The report in (LJ & L) came out strongly against "tracking", the separating of students into different classes by ability, claiming that

Tracking systems in many schools have the effect of segregating learners along lines that are primarily racial or ethnic. In this way, and because such segregation prevents a richness of experience for high- and low-track students which mixed classes provide, the hidden curriculum demonstrated by tracking promotes elitism of certain learning styles, modes of expression, and cultural and ethnic views. [Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford 1989, p. 40]

Nancy McHugh, president of the National Council of Teachers of English at the time of the conference and formerly president of the California Association of Teachers of English, made the interpretation of gifted students as uppity bourgeoisie more bluntly:

"Higher-ability" students need to appreciate and interact with "lower-ability" students to be reminded that their differences are relatively little and to be better conditioned to live in a democratic society. [Elbow, p. 36]


Multiple Readings

A theme that went along with the badness of grading and testing was the importance of making students search for multiple readings of stories. Both are post-modern attacks on the notion of truth.

What I described in the democracy chapter as the most concrete outcome of the conference—a classroom that seeks multiple readings and investigates where they came from and what interests they serve rather than seeking a correct or best reading—is clearly an empowering effect of [post-modern] theory. Student perceptions and readings are heard and taken seriously. Students won't so often have that characteristic experience in English classrooms of just listening to the teacher's interpretation in lectures or of just looking for the teacher's interpretation as they engage in discussion or write papers or of feeling that their own perceptions are wrong or irrelevant.
--Elbow p. 79

This is actually asking students to do cultural critique rather than literary analysis. In practice, the Literary Left has introduced into classrooms only fiction with blunt and obvious messages about oppression, which have only one possible interpretation (browse the Open Syllabus Explorer for proof of this). So all that has changed is that students are now made to listen to and look for the teacher's interpretation, and then do a cultural critique rather than a literary evaluation.


Multi-Culturalism

The NCTE meeting had some recommendations to extend the teaching of English, or to create some new department, to also teach literature from other cultures (LJ & L p. 31).

This would have been an excellent idea, but it never happened. I find it singularly odd--I think I'll even say revealing--that despite decades of English teachers saying they valued the literature of other cultures, what we got instead were not the authentic stories honored and retold within those cultures, but either stories manufactured for Western culture about other cultures being oppressed by whites (Things Fall Apart, Beloved, Ceremony, House Made of Dawn), or stories about other cultures told by members of our culture (The Good Earth) and sanitized to satisfy our morals. According to the Open Syllabus Explorer, 233 American English or Literature classes have assigned readings of Amy Tan, and 163 have assigned Edward Said's Orientalism; but only 14 have assigned one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, 21 have assigned The Tale of Genji, and 15 have assigned any novel by Yasunari Kawabata.


Adoption of Post-modernism as a Tool

The work of people like Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze, Helene Cixous, and Michel Foucault has been used to break down hierarchical notions of truth and meaning, to attack conceptions of a unified self that is outside of culture, and to combat the rigidity of disciplines and discourses. The insights of these thinkers have largely been gained by applying to various spheres of knowledge the revelations of post-Saussurian linguistics [2], or opposing those revelations… All of these writers claim that their work can help to destabilize categories of knowledge and overthrow hierarchies of knowledge, and so destabilize the power relations of hierarchical societies. But the question remains, for leftist literary criticism, how to bring the insights of that work into the hands of larger numbers of people. [Davis & Mirabella 1990, p. 5]

Deconstructionist philosophy was adopted because it was politically useful, (1) to "break down hierarchical notions of truth and meaning" (to destroy students' ability to reason and make it easy to indoctrinate them), (2) to attack the Western notion of the individual, with its attendant rights and liberties, and (3) to attack the notion that the English department should be studying English.


Hatred of Literature

The leftist literature professor's indifference to literature which I have noted in the autobiography of Vincent Leitch is in many cases outright hostility. The post-1960 essays in Leitch's Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism are almost entirely articles on what's bad about literature, with only a handful of mentions, in over a thousand pages, of any appreciation of literature. Louis Kampf, the professor I mentioned in my last post, allegedly wrote in a 1970 article (which I can't find a citation to) that literature is a "weapon in the hands of imperialism." Lennard Davis, the first editor of (Davis & Mirabella 1990), wrote Resisting Novels in 1987, a book devoted to demonstrating that the novel is an inherently bourgeois and deceptive literary form, and that reading novels inhibits the formation of revolutionary consciousness.

As I hope to show, we can no longer smugly think of the novel as the culmination of the human spirit or the height of magnetic accomplishment. It is after all a cultural phenomenon with certain overt aims and a hidden agenda. While few would praise the current state of our culture to the hilt, it is all too common to find warm, unreflective praise for the novel as a form — even among leftists who are quite critical of other aspects of society. A colder review might see the novel as part of the process that got us to the world of the 'minimal self' in the first place.
--Davis 1987, p. 5-6

Davis' critique of the novel is another proof of a general framework I've developed over the past years for understanding literature and art throughout history. It's such a perfect fit to my predictions that I hope to go over it in detail in a separate post.

DIGRESSION: My framework (me, Bad Horse, not Davis) says that Western culture repeatedly develops idealist, collectivist, totalitarian ideologies which claim that:

- There is no need to view the world empirically as a complex system.
- There is one single grand, simplified theory of reality which is the only path to Truth, such as Plato's idealism, the Bible, or Marxist theory.
- This theory always takes the form of having a single "logos", an origin of truth which all knowledge proceeds from: the world of Forms, God, the monarchy, the economic base of society, or the Volk.
- Because they have this single logos, purity is a central concept in their philosophy and aesthetics. Ethnic cleansing, the purely virtuous heroes and purely evil villains demanded by {Plato, medieval allegory, and the neo-classicists}, the vacant eyes of Byzantine Madonnas, honor killings, Puritan witch-hunts, the neo-classical reinterpretation of Aristotle's theory of drama as being based on a "tragic flaw", Marxist purges, and the clean lines and colors of most primitive and modern art all stem from the same underlying ontology.
- Using this single origin of truth enables the theory to use the simple Aristotelian model of causation, and of the world as a state-space, in which actions cause deterministic transitions from one state to another.
- This simplistic deterministic physics and logic, which does not involve real-valued measurements or probabilities, lets the theory claim to draw conclusions and to make predictions about the future with complete confidence.
- A special class of people (philosophers, priests, the Party) has exclusive access to or understanding of this logos.
- Using this single origin of truth also necessarily means all power and authority must be given to those people.
- The implementation of the theory is thus too centrally-controlled to allow individual deviation from the prescribed social behavior.
- These people develop a non-empirical epistemology which makes it impossible to disprove their theory.
- These ideologies therefore always suppress art and replace it with propaganda, to prevent individual deviation from the prescribed social behavior, and to teach their insular epistemology.
- The "art" they endorse is designed to deny and suppress the life of the individual, and destroy their ability to think critically or empirically.

The great examples of these ideologies are Platonism, medieval Christianity, Marxism, Puritanism, the Restoration and neo-classical era [5], Nazism, Stalinism, and Post-modernism [1]. Great art and literature was made mostly in the gaps between societies ruled by these ideologies [6].

What Davis does, only half-knowingly, is recycle the arguments of Plato [3], the Catholic Church, and the Puritans against fiction, to say it is inherently bad because it tells lies--where by "lies" he means that it depicts the world in ways that don't conform to Marxist theory, just as Plato disapproved of poetry that depicted heroes and Gods in ways he did not approve of, as the Church disapproved of art that depicted saints showing human emotions, and as all of them disapproved of stories in which the heroes were not entirely virtuous or in which virtue was not rewarded. It was deliciously ironic to me to hear Davis assume the reader will be surprised to find him agreeing with the Puritans, when, as I think I've already pointed out on this blog, the American coastal culture that created our elite universities and fostered the culture of the Literary Left is directly descended from the Puritans.

I find Davis' concluding recommendation chilling: "reform" the novel by reprogramming the reader (p. 238-9).

Knowing the function of our collective defenses, we can take strength in setting them up and then wiping them out. Further, there is a sense that reception theory gives us that since the text is only part of the transaction, changing the reader can change the text. Resisting the novel may be thought of as moving from a kind of implied reader to another variety of informed reader — one who is not just competent in literary skills but in the range of affective, political, defensive skills as well.

The bottom line to this section is that it isn't coincidence that modernist and post-modern literature combines so many styles and rules and guidelines that make bad fiction (shatter the narrative, shatter the timeline, don't have a plot, don't have a dramatic structure, don't have a resolution, make everything dismal, make everything ambiguous, be obscure and unclear, and so on). The literature of the New Left is bad not because of Marxism or SJWs, but because of its modernist inheritance.

At their roots, the philosophies of modernism and especially post-modernism are hostile to art itself. They are, as Marcel Duchamp, Annie Dillard, and Jean Baudrillard (1986) noted, anti-art. They prescribe anti-art in different ways than the medieval church did, but we see in both cases an exact inversion of many of the common-sense guidelines for good art and literature that we find in Aristotle, in Shakespeare's works, and among today's "bourgeois, middlebrow" authors.


Splintering into English and Creative Writing

The rise of creative writing workshops and the MFA in Creative Writing spoken about in McGurl's book happened during this time. According to Chad Harbach, in "MFA vs NYC", chapter 2 of (Harbach 2014), the creative writing programs--which are now often taught by the English department, but are sometimes a separate department--have created their own culture of literature and their own canon, based on short stories rather than novels. Chad writes (p. 23-24),

To be an NYC writer means to submit to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability.... In recent years it has achieved a fearsome intensity.... a weakened market for literary fiction makes publishing houses less likely than ever to devote resources to work that doesn't, like a pop song, "hook" the reader right away.
...
What one notices first about NYC-orbiting contemporary fiction is how much sense everyone makes. The best young NYC novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots need as a bow. How one longs, in a way, for endings like that of DeLillo's first novel, Americana, where everyone just pees on everyone else for no reason! The trend toward neatness and accessibility... might be better understood as the result of fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow [that's a derogatory term meaning "readers who think they're sophisticated but aren't"], combined with a deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested.... Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky?

So the reason short stories in literary magazines are so much worse than literary novels is that literary novels are still published with the hope of selling more than 10,000 copies. Stories in literary magazines are directed only at the literary-magazine creative-writing-workshop subculture. As I showed in "Literary fiction vs. fim-fiction: Popularity", all of the major literary short-story markets--probably all of them combined--have fewer readers than fimfiction. This allows the literary magazines to cling to the early modernist view that anything that's popular or easily understandable must not be good.


[1] Post-modernism is a special case, which says there is only one path to knowing that there is no Truth. Primitive art, which I didn't list, is another special case, possibly associated with animism as an alternative doctrine of essences, but there are too many different kinds and too much uncertainty for it to be a clear example.

[2] The phrase "post-Saussurian linguistics" in literary theory is code for "post-modern interpretations of Saussurian linguistics". Literary theorists remain in stubborn denial of all linguistics after Saussure, who taught his untested theories in Switzerland in 1907-1911.

[3] Davis never mentions that he's recycling Plato's arguments, yet elsewhere cites Plato's Republic, in which he makes those arguments--revealing both that he hasn't read Plato's literary theory, and that he cites works he hasn't read.

[4] The one positive use of "excellence" is in a passage which turns out to be a little scary on close analysis: an argument that, as some standards of excellence are needed, teachers must be able to flunk students out of class sometimes, and this judgement should be made "holistically" [meaning at their will] by the teacher, rather than objectively, as a linear sum of individual right and wrong answers (Elbow p. 254). The one positive use of "gifted" is the importance of having gifted teachers (LJ & L p. 43).

[5] 1650-1800 is difficult for this theory. It encompasses the Enlightenment, baroque music and architecture, and Beethoven, and also absolute monarchies and (IMHO) the worst literature and least-important painting between the Middle Ages and 1950.

[6] This doesn't apply to music, architecture, and non-representational art. I'm not sure why, though I have some ideas.


References

Jean Baudrillard & Catherine Franchlin (1986). Interview, reprinted in Giancarlo Politi, ed., 1991, Art and Philosophy, Novastampa, Parma.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Lennard Davis & M. Bella Mirabella, eds., 1990. Left Politics and the Literary Profession. Columbia University Press.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living by Fiction. Harper & Row, NY.

Peter Elbow, 1990. What is English? The Modern Language Association, The National Council of Teachers of English.

Chad Harbach, ed., 2014. MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. n+1, NYC..

Vincent Leitch, ed., 2ed 2010. Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism

Richard Lloyd-Jones & Andrea Lunsford, eds., 1989. The English Coalition Conference: Democracy through Language. The Modern Language Association, The National Council of Teachers of English.

Comments ( 31 )

I find Davis' concluding recommendation chilling: "reform" the novel by reprogramming the reader (p. 238-9).

Knowing the function of our collective defenses, we can take strength in setting them up and then wiping them out. Further, there is a sense that reception theory gives us that since the text is only part of the transaction, changing the reader can change the text. Resisting the novel may be thought of as moving from a kind of implied reader to another variety of informed reader — one who is not just competent in literary skills but in the range of affective, political, defensive skills as well.

And yet it moves.

I like your "Western culture drifts towards totalitarianism" argument—but the real concern to me is whether totalitarianism is a steady/absorbing state for Western culture, which it doesn't seem to be. Certainly you're making a good case that participants in this movement are venal[1], but I still don't know that I find them especially threatening. They've created a kodoku out of anti-liberal ideology for anyone living in ELA departments, yes, and they have a near-monopoly on educating the next generation of teachers and "scholars". But for whatever reason, people keep preferring good art to pomo art, which suggests to me that we've got some sort of intrinsic sense of valuation that can't be easily or completely overridden by intellectual slop.

We'd probably be better off without pomo, but if pomo is fighting a battle against intrinsic human nature, I know where I'll put my long-term bets—and I couldn't be happier with my assumption of who/what will win out in the end.

-------------------------------

[1] A word which at once is completely contrary to the problems with post-modernism and, at the same time, one that I think elegantly captures the intellectual callowness on display.

Seriously? I'm still the first commenter?

Do you have any idea how long it took me to track down the word kodoku for that comment? Like, half an hour. Why has nobody else responded to this yet?

4524185

I read the blog when there were no comments but I was in between yu-gi-oh duels so I put "make a dumb comment" on hold

also I have nothing intelligent to add to the discussion. I have hot opinions on all this stuff but they are worthless

4524185

It's late and I'm supposed to be working on my Thesis. I'm still supposed to be working on it, but I'm taking a break to write this response.

4524180

I mean, English has been a mandatory subject for a while, and English teachers have continuously tried to push their views on literature on students. It never really seems to take - people simply get completely turned off literature as a whole and decide to take pride in not being a reader, which is unfortunate but indicates a strong resistance to drinking the English department's Kool-Aid, or people realize independently that they love reading in spite of their English classes. The ones who discover their love of literature via English class will go on to pursue English degrees, and so the cycle continues, but at least the general public probably isn't being too influenced by their grade school literature classes. The only big downside are the people who might have become avid readers but don't because they weren't introduced to good books.

Also, as a "higher-ability" student who is now studying at MIT, I do find certain parts of this blog to be interesting given my life experiences.

To be honest, I didn't even know we had an English department. Like, I know MIT offers English Lit classes (pretty much purely to fulfill the breadth requirements of the STEM degrees, because who the hell gets an English degree at MIT?) but I always assumed that it was in that one big nebulous "social sciences and humanities and all the other non-STEM-non-business" department that I assume exists because we believe in trying to look like we're going for a balanced education, and because occasionally one of the engineering or math students wants to try something interdisciplinary. That being said, I can also see MIT as being the least likely to accept an English professor purely based on ideology rather than academic qualifications, which means that, yes, I suppose that the non-feminist applicant had a bigger advantage than in other schools in that his credentials could actually be looked at instead of his ideology. While we have our fair share of activists like all Universities liberal towns, it's probably a lot less than a lot of other schools around us, since STEM students tend not to care as much about social activism as other fields, I would say.

Kampf's interior monologue is in the voice of a paranoid schizophrenic: "The features of one colleague, a woman, are masked by a permanent smile which threatens to crack her jaw; I'm sure it will be there the moment Bush presses the atomic button. We are the guardian of the eternal verities, yet never speak our private truths…. Students scramble by me in the halls. One who has the maddened eyes of Alexander Haig tries to stare me down. I wonder how many will comply with the planning of nuclear holocaust or the economic strangulation of millions."

This quote is funny to me, because of all the schools, we probably are the ones who would be most responsible for "the planning of nuclear holocaust or the economic strangulation of millions." Despite the constant activism on campus against violations of privacy and other dangers of letting Google have all our information, most of us are happily trucking along with designing the prediction algorithms that we know will one day reduce people to numbers and nothing more. Our general reaction to finding out that one of our labs is working on nuclear warhead targeting systems is "cool! Can I see?" Most of us simply don't care about ethics and I suspect many of us would be in favor of a technocracy replacing democracy as the form of governance. So yeah, it sounds crazy, and he might be crazy, but I don't think he's entirely wrong either. And I have no idea what this has to do with right-wing vs. left-wing ideologies - I'm sure there's a wide spectrum of people working on the instruments of our oppression.

And to be fair to the NCTE, the "higher-ability" students were the elitist bourgeoisie in my time. We were certain that we were better than those dumb regular students and that we deserved better treatment because of our superior intellect. I still have fond memories of using the name of the most advanced class that students who weren't in our special program could take as a pejorative synonymous with being stupid. Then again, interacting with the "lower-ability" students wouldn't exactly have fixed that. Every time they tried to force us to share a class with the regular students, we simply stayed in our cliques and did our best to skew the bell-curve as hard as possible so that the teachers would be forced to give the regular students low grades to maintain the class average at whatever it was supposed to be.

I'm pretty sure our class also become more and more fascist the more we were forced to interact with the intellectual proletariat, since we decided after hanging out with them that maybe democracy wasn't such a good idea and rule by enlightened despots such as ourselves might be better. I also remember the time when our entire class advocated for the ending of all social programs to encourage economic growth and prune away the undesirable (read: stupid - we assumed that anyone who found themselves in dire straits was stupid, since smart people would be able to think themselves out of those situations) parts of our society. The look on the motivational speaker's face was priceless. So maybe we could have used a little "equality over excellence."

So yeah, maybe these people are crazy extremists, but they aren't exactly tilting at windmills. They're just using the wrong quantities of the wrong weapons to fight their foes. Using English class as a means for exploring different perspectives and trying to develop our empathy would probably be a better approach, and we'll be sure to let them know once we construct our robot overlords to rule over them.

Bradel #5 · May 8th · · ·

4524300

Despite the constant activism on campus against violations of privacy and other dangers of letting Google have all our information, most of us are happily trucking along with designing the prediction algorithms that we know will one day reduce people to numbers and nothing more.

the prediction algorithms that we know will one day reduce people to numbers

one day

:rainbowlaugh:

4524312 Hey. Don't get wise, 4524312. :trixieshiftright:

4524312
Sorry, meant to say "the prediction algorithms that we know will one day reduce people to numbers efficiently." All this putzing around with neural nets and surveillance data is frankly embarrassing compared to the stuff we were promised in 1984.

4524300

Every time they tried to force us to share a class with the regular students, we simply stayed in our cliques and did our best to skew the bell-curve as hard as possible so that the teachers would be forced to give the regular students low grades to maintain the class average at whatever it was supposed to be.

Huh. I wonder if this is Boston culture, and if this sensitivity to academic elitism is a reaction to Boston culture. I used to hang out at MIT and Harvard a lot when I lived in Boston, because they had lots of interesting speakers and clubs, and because there wasn't much else worth going to on the subway line. On first meeting a student in Boston, even if I met them on the MIT campus, a lot of them would immediately ask what school I attended--and when I pointed this out to them, they were surprised to hear that wasn't what everyone in America did.

I've come across similar attitudes with Yale students. West Coasters, too, but they're more interested in what companies you've worked for. Google is to the Bay area as MIT is to Boston.

I find it singularly odd--I think I'll even say revealing--that despite decades of English teachers saying they valued the literature of other cultures, what we got instead were not the authentic stories honored and retold within those cultures, but either stories manufactured for Western culture about other cultures being oppressed by whites (Things Fall Apart, Beloved, Ceremony, House Made of Dawn), or stories about other cultures told by members of our culture (The Good Earth) and sanitized to satisfy our morals.

This is a really interesting and apt criticism. While you're far too inclined to criticize attempts to fight 'elitism' (the danger there is simply that people become insanely blindered given the slightest opportunity, and 'tracking' them into privileged streams pretty much guarantees they will form worldviews ENTIRELY composed of those like themselves: the only thing that mitigates this powerful psychological mechanism is continued persistent contact with members of the out-group) you're calling out an intellectual laziness where intent at 'multiculturalism' is fulfilled by just in-group self-flagellation. This does NOT count as multiculturalism.

Speaking of blindered…

The New Left had by 1989 settled into a siege mentality, believing they were waging a desperate war for survival against superior forces when they had already won.

OH COME ON

Because they published their own books which only they read? That counts as 'won'? Ya trollin', Horse. :rainbowlaugh:

4524391

Because they published their own books which only they read? That counts as 'won'? Ya trollin', Horse.

Oh. I worded that very badly. I don't mean "won in society at large." I mean "won within the world of English departments." That was where they were expressing their paranoia--their feeling that English departments were still dominated by the Right. The tenure decision, and the passage I quoted talking about leftist advances in academia, were both just within English departments. Kampf accused his fellow English teachers of being prejudiced against Women's Studies.

4524185 Well, this was a singularly unpopular post. I don't know why. I read large parts of 5 books to write it. This was a huge waste of time.

Bradel #12 · May 8th · · ·

4524627
Guessing it might be burn-out? You posted these guys all in very quick succession, and at least two of the others drew very large comment sections. I'm actually not even sure I read all five of the posts. I think I did, but I might have skipped the fourth one.

As always, I think one of the big (and underrated) factors is posting regularity. SS&E gets a lot of his following through regular output, regardless of quality—and that's true for a lot of stories on the site I think. I don't think it makes sense to shoot for daily on blog posts like these because (1) research takes work and (2) the site audience for high-end theory is much more limited than the audience for cheap, mid-level fiction. But maybe picking two days a week to always have a new blog post ready to go, so people who are interested know "Wednesdays and Sundays are going to be Bad Horse days"?

Also, there's definitely a possibility the comments will still liven up. My memory is that for at least one or two of the other posts, there was a small response at first but it picked up dramatically over the next 24 hours. But again, I do think there's a real chance of comment burn-out here, though. These have come fast enough that, for a bunch of thinking people, many of them may not feel like they have a lot more to say, or haven't had time to mull over their thoughts before your next post. Definitely, I've had the experience through these five of thinking "I'm still talking on Blog X, so maybe I'll keep talking there instead of trying to engage on Blog Y" (which is one big reason you didn't see me talking in the same place as bookplayer and Ghost, who are generally two of my favorite interlocutors).

All that said, these blog posts were a lot of fun and I really enjoyed reading them. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. Thank you, for taking the time on the research and on the writing. It was appreciated.

4524652 I'm pretty much in this boat. I feel that Bad Horse is aspiring some purely american reasons for something that, AFAIK, is a global phenomenon, but I'm having a hard time putting down words to explain that.

4524627

Horse, this is the fourth or fifth post you've made on this general subject, and the third in a row that you've made on this exact topic.

Your commenters aren't saying much now because they've already said all they mean to say. And being smart people, they shut up when that happens.

You could get more comments if you brought in a whole bunch of new smart commenters, or if a few stupid ones got into a you-da-ho-no-YOU-da-ho tennis match.

But you have the audience that you have because you have cultivated it carefully. Having said their piece, they'll wait for a new subject to come up.

So--how about those Orioles, huh? BronyCon's during a series of home games this year. Come prepared for a riot.:rainbowdetermined2:

Bradel #15 · May 8th · · ·

4524739

or if a few stupid ones got into a you-da-ho-no-YOU-da-ho tennis match.

Me and some other people tried that in the first one! I guess maybe we should have waited for the later stages.

Georg #16 · May 8th · · ·

My, we've come a long way from "Burn the heretic!"

We now use a much cleaner-burning fuel...

4524336
I should note that the blatant elitism was from before I went to university, and before I moved to the Boston area for graduate studies. I have no idea what the higher-ability kids are like here.

Also, I did not know that asking where someone went to school was considered an unusual question. Every time I meet someone in MIT, even if they're not a grad student here, the first question is "what department are you in?" and the second is "where did you do you undergrad/where are you studying now if not at MIT?"

4524336
Also, considering Boston/Cambridge is basically one giant college town/East Coast version of Silicon Valley, I can definitely see a culture of academic elitism arising amongst large swathe of the population, leading to a heavier backlash against higher-ability students.

4525513 Having grown up in Massachusetts, and knowing people from all levels of educations, the academics produces more people with various neurosis than anything else. MIT in particular attracts people with various levels of Aspergers and high functioning autism.

The American left felt like it was under siege in 1990 because the US had had radical right-wing Republican presidents since 1980.

Saying that GHW Bush was a radical right winger strikes me as inane. Just saying.

The books emphasize repeatedly the necessity of "making literacy a possibility for all students" (LJ & L p. xx), and the importance of focusing education on the needs of the students performing the most poorly.

To within a rounding error, the quoted text strikes me as an appropriate and noble goal. Not a fan of the remaining part, and I am a strong believer in tracking, if not tracking everything.

"Tracking seems to promote a narrowly defined norm of excellence in American culture"

If the narrowness of the definition is what's seen as the problem, I might be inclined to agree. There are, after all, many paths to excellence, and it is not the case that all are adequately supported.

to argue that placing the learning disabled in regular classrooms makes everyone learn faster

It's been my experience that placing even bright students with significantly different learning styles from the norm MASSIVELY slows down learning for everyone else.

"Higher-ability" students need to appreciate and interact with "lower-ability" students to be reminded that their differences are relatively little and to be better conditioned to live in a democratic society. [Elbow, p. 36]

That's what non-academic activities are for. Or classes where you only care about reaching a minimum level everyone is required to have (in my case, for example, Health, Home Ec, and things like Shop).

Beloved

Note: Beloved sucked and was a huge waste of time. I am unconvinced that they couldn't have found a better novel to use by a black person, a woman, or a black woman.

Deconstructionist philosophy was adopted because it was politically useful, (1) to "break down hierarchical notions of truth and meaning" (to destroy students' ability to reason and make it easy to indoctrinate them), (2) to attack the Western notion of the individual, with its attendant rights and liberties, and (3) to attack the notion that the English department should be studying English.

Question: if they were serious about that as an academic pursuit, shouldn't it have only followed after developing those things, like a grounding in classical logic and rhetoric?

[The novel] is after all a cultural phenomenon with certain overt aims and a hidden agenda.

What?

Davis' critique of the novel is another proof of a general framework I've developed over the past years for understanding literature and art throughout history. It's such a perfect fit to my predictions that I hope to go over it in detail in a separate post.

Oh, okay.

where by "lies" he means that it depicts the world in ways that don't conform to Marxist theory

I find that hard to believe:

The great examples of these ideologies are Platonism, medieval Christianity, Marxism, Puritanism, the Restoration and neo-classical era [5], Nazism, Stalinism, and Post-modernism [1]. Great art and literature was made mostly in the gaps between societies ruled by these ideologies [6].

4526188 OH. I put my framework in a quote box because it's a digression from the text. You interpreted it as being Davis' framework. No. That's mine.

4526207
That makes much more sense. Thanks for the clarification!

How does english literature reconcile the conservative patriarchal nature of many foreign cultures in its text while still mainly critiquing western norms? Or, are you implying that novels like The Good Earth examine other cultures only to the extent that their flaws highlight america's own? Or, does it use colonialism and culture creep as an "escape hatch", whereby the evils of colonialism eclipse and preclude examination of that culture's conservative nature?

That Resisting Novels work is tripping me out. How influential was it? He is suspicious of single sources of truth, which is not crazy at all imo, but is that because he prefers deconstructionism, or because he views the text as terminally inflexible? Does he weigh the value of novels against his arguments, or is he only speaking to enumerate all every argument against?

Is there any critical theory like Godel's incompleteness theorem? That the more powerful a school of classification and critique, the less universally applicable it is, and likewise the more universally a criterion can be applied, the less weighty and inherently meaningful are it's classifications? This would be a nice solution that may complement your theory on how likely a story is to become and stay part of the cannon, and allow a true diversity of thought. The idea being that old white guys 40 year old books are, more or less, just as insightful as they were when published, just perhaps not as immediately relevant as a peer writing a book now. Then again, this thought might not do much, since the pressure professionally is to be as extreme and relevant as possible.

An academic delineation between english and foreign literature just might stop this cultural appropriation.

4528331

How does english literature reconcile the conservative patriarchal nature of many foreign cultures in its text while still mainly critiquing western norms? Or, are you implying that novels like The Good Earth examine other cultures only to the extent that their flaws highlight america's own? Or, does it use colonialism and culture creep as an "escape hatch", whereby the evils of colonialism eclipse and preclude examination of that culture's conservative nature?

The main way is by not reading fiction. I'll check some entries from the identity-politics section of my Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism:

Eve Sedgwick
excerpt from Between Men: English lit & male homosocial desire: Does not mention any books.
excerpt from Epistemology of the Closet: Does not mention any books.

Homi Bharha, The Commitment to Theory: Mentions a film festival, an Indian film, an article from Marxism Today. Cites Foucault. Quotes from John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty". Discusses the British miners' strike of 1984. Cites "Hegemony and Socialist Strategy". Discusses Eurocentricity. On p. 2365, 12 pages in, we what at first looks like a reference to novels: "Montesquieu's Turkish Despot, Barthes' Japan, Kristeva's China, Derrida's Nambikwara, Lyotard's Cashinahua pagans". Turns out not to be; they are all references to political or philosophical papers. Quotes from India and India Missions (a Christian missionary book). Cites Franz Fanon (Marxist political theorist). Quotes Fanon. No mention of any fiction.

Gail Rubin, from "Thinking Sex": Does not mention any fiction.

Donna Haraway, "A manifesto for cyborgs": Does not seem to mention any fiction; I'm just skimming it.

Richard Ohmann, "The Shaping of a Canon": Mentions lots of novels, but doesn't talk about their content, only their sales figures. Interesting quote: "Beserman asked early readers of Love Story where they had heard of the book. Most read it on recommendation of another person; Beserman then spoke to that person, and so on back to the beginning of the chain of verbal endorsements. At the original source, in more than half the instances, she found the [New York] Times."

Gloria Anzaldua, "The New Mestiza": I don't think it mentions any novels. It's quite long, so I'm not going to check the whole thing.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "A critique of postcolonial reason": No mention of any novels.

I might be able to find someone talking about some work of fiction somewhere in the last thousand pages of this anthology of literary theory, if I stuck with it, but literary theorists talk less about literature than most people on the street do.

That's just looking at the "most important" essays collected in anthologies. If you look at the literary journals, there are some articles about books. The literary journals are quite different from what is taught in college and what books are promoted by publishers, though.

I don't know how influential Resisting Novels is. It shows up twice in the Open Syllabus Explorer, which is a lot for a book that costs $40. Google Scholar says cited by 295. Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,475,324 in Books, zero reviews.

I see that, strangely, the entire book is online free at archive.org.

The Good Earth is a fine book, it's just an example of a book about the Chinese written by a European. She spent decades in China, so in fact I think she's legitimately able to write about the Chinese, but I was making the point that translations of books written in Chinese seldom appear. Waiting by Ha Jin is a more contemporary book about China, one that I think is good and honest, by a person who grew up in China, but again written for an American market. Actually, it shows communism in China as surreal and Kafkaesque, so I'd be surprised if it gets assigned, despite its fame. <checks> -- No; the Open Syllabus Explorer has no mention of it being assigned in any American literature class.

>Is there any critical theory like Godel's incompleteness theorem? That the more powerful a school of classification and critique, the less universally applicable it is,

That would say that Marxism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism are either not powerful or not universal, so, no.

"Higher-ability" students need to appreciate and interact with "lower-ability" students to be reminded that their differences are relatively little and to be better conditioned to live in a democratic society. [Elbow, p. 36]

To be honest, I don't think this is such a bad idea. I was an IB student in high school (i.e. among the "higher-ability" students and segregated from regular classes) and we were hella arrogant. Maybe English class isn't the place to learn this, but it's a lesson that's going to be taught eventually - may as well be relatively early in a proper learning environment.

My class got this lesson during Math.

What I described in the democracy chapter as the most concrete outcome of the conference—a classroom that seeks multiple readings and investigates where they came from and what interests they serve rather than seeking a correct or best reading—is clearly an empowering effect of [post-modern] theory. Student perceptions and readings are heard and taken seriously. Students won't so often have that characteristic experience in English classrooms of just listening to the teacher's interpretation in lectures or of just looking for the teacher's interpretation as they engage in discussion or write papers or of feeling that their own perceptions are wrong or irrelevant.

--Elbow p. 79

Maybe I'm already indoctrinated, but at face value I don't see a huge problem with this. Maybe I'm not distinguishing between cultural critique and literary analysis well enough. Can you elaborate?

4530732 Neither looking for multiple readings, nor looking for what interests they serve, is bad, but it is more evidence of following Marxist and post-modern doctrine. Doing those things "rather than seeking a correct or best reading" is IMHO bad. They aren't just saying it can have any number of readings; they are saying there is no best reading--that the author's intentions had no impact on what they produced. This is a very odd thing to say.

(Note this is not at all what the New Critics allegedly said in the doctrine known as "the intentional fallacy"--they didn't say authorial intention was unimportant to their result; they said that you shouldn't need to ask the author her or his intention, because if it isn't present in the text, then they just failed, and you don't care about what they intended, only about what they accomplished. (I say "allegedly" bcoz Wimsatt & Beardsley were IMHO not very good New Critics.)))

If you simply think stories can have multiple readings, then any story might have any number of good readings, but many will have just one. Post-modernists explicitly deny that any story can have just one reading, because they insist that language cannot convey meaning--the meaning must come from the reader, and so there must be as many readings as there are classes of readers. The "rather than seeking a best reading" has a lot of bad philosophy embedded in it.

In practice, they don't do this--they will always say that a pre-20th-century text does in fact have just one reading, which is a sexist or colonialist one. And the modern texts which they introduce are explicitly political, so they also have just one reading. Nobody looks at "Native Son" and says it's a metaphor for a conflict between Western Europe and the developing nations.

When people focus on looking for the political purpose of stories, they don't ask about other themes, and they don't acknowledge the ambiguity and open-ended, questioning nature which is central to the function of the novel. Novels are contrary to the ideological model inherent in cultural critique. Cultural critique assumes that all novels are like the novels Marxists write: propaganda. Good novels are not; they ask questions rather than answering them. A cultural critique approach rules out the possibility that a novel can be anything like a novel.

This starts getting at something I hinted at about 2 years ago while talking about the principal component of literature. Looking back thru history, there is an obvious contrast between societies which believe the purpose of literature is to indoctrinate the masses with the dominant ideology, and societies which believe its purpose is to debate the dominant ideology. The 19th century was a period in which the novel was an arena for debate, but Marxism is one of those cultures which sees literature as only being for indoctrination. So they interpret literature as if that were its only function.

4531234
Gotcha. Thanks for explaining it so thoroughly.

Also, these blog posts have all been excellent and eye-opening, so thanks for writing them, too.

Picked up a link to this from a bored scroll down through my feed, gave the whole series a read and figured I'd comment here.

And then I wondered if anybody'd care and gave up on it.

And then I came back. So.

Lemme say one thing before I start wandering, it is really super interesting to read (a translation of) Journey to the West after a couple-few years of consuming serialized media, and see the same patterns. There's even a recap ep before the series finale!

I'll say that you make a pretty compelling overall argument that College English lacked a compelling thing to be about and then became about itself, which is a thing that happens on a non-nationwide-college-departmental community level all the time and tends toward a destructive ouroboros.

But, I mean. We are all our own little islands in the world and none of us know one another. When I type this post out I'm not making an imposition of thought on a fellow mind, I'm making up people in my head and deciding what they believe and writing words I think would convince them. And all I really have to build those fellow people out of are the things I've pulled into my mind. It's the same way when I read your posts, after all. I made somebody up inside my head to read them to me, and made somebody up inside my head to be the person they were supposed to be spoken to.

It happens a little more obviously with fiction, of course. You can be a person who doesn't think there's such thing as magic rings and yet have no problem sitting down to read Lord of the Rings, and if anyone tried to tell you they were terrible books because everyone knows magic rings aren't real, you'd probably just look at them funny.

But there aren't separate fiction words and reality words. There are just decisions you make about whether to start basing your internal listener after a fiction-accepting you or a reality-accepting you, and both of those things can't help but start with you. And everything an author tries to say starts with them imagining up a storyteller and then a you who will listen to that story, and both of those things can't help but start with them.

And eventually, because culture drifts and cannot in its entirety be transmitted or absorbed, eventually someone looks at the rock the editorial cartoonist has written "debt" on and decides that, of course, it must mean that people in those days actually carried around giant rocks proportional to the amount of debt they had. This is how come all over the world choruses still bust out the words to the hymns of Emperor Justinian's praise cult, on account of John of Patmos just thought he was making a super-obvious reference.

But even on much, much smaller time scales, while it's basically completely mental to entirely discount the author's intent in writing the book, the experience you had reading a book the first time is still your own experience. You thought what you thought. You made up the narrator and the audience you supposed had been intended and you got the impression from the book that you got. If your trail of thought only crossed over the original author's by chance, then so be it.

And if you find out later on that you'd mistaken tragedy for farce or vice-versa, well, that's all well and good, but you can't unread a book, anymore than you can unhear a song or unwatch a movie. Sure, time and memory might eventually accomplish something similar, but you can't restore yourself to your original state with an effort of will.

When I read Journey to the West and giggled to myself at finding a recap episode in a book, I was almost certainly not having the reaction the original author (or the translator; I'm reading the Yu edition) intended me to have. I don't know what that reaction was, and would be curious to find out! But I was also, at least, aware that it wasn't the reaction that I was supposed to be having, being so far removed from the original audience.

I wasn't exactly thinking of it in those terms at the time, though, having only recently been exposed to a formal statement of what I suppose is "enunciation theory", in this commentary on a game called The Beginner's Guide, but which also puts me in mind of late-period Wittgenstein? Which I also had not yet been exposed to when I laughed at the recap episode?

(You probably shouldn't watch that video if you haven't yet played The Beginner's Guide but intend to, because you can't unwatch a video, and it's pretty clear that part of playing The Beginner's Guide is that you're not supposed to know what it's about before you get there.)

So what's the importance of social justice in English? Well, at some point you need to be aware that there are people living within your own society who have faced problems that neither you nor your family have ever faced. Otherwise when they talk about them you're not going to what to make of them. Are they expecting a fiction-believing you? An actual you? And we've kind of grown, in America, to rely on schooling to create a common body of ideas to put in people so that they have some common ground to understand one another. And where do you put that awareness? Well, it starts out seeming like fiction, so...

Yeah, I totally buy that things have gone crazy in re English as a collegiate discipline. But if it was just completely divorced from how anybody actually experienced a book, or anything that was beneficial to anybody, it seems like things would have collapsed by now.

4553493 I clicked on the notification for your reply late at night, thinking, "It'll probably just take a minute..."

I don't have anything to add. I don't think I followed what you were saying, and you lost me at

I wasn't exactly thinking of it in those terms at the time, though, having only recently been exposed to a formal statement of what I suppose is "enunciation theory", in this commentary on a game called The Beginner's Guide, but which also puts me in mind of late-period Wittgenstein?

I just didn't want you to think no one read it. :applejackunsure:

I guess I would say re

But if it was just completely divorced from how anybody actually experienced a book, or anything that was beneficial to anybody, it seems like things would have collapsed by now.

... that the undergrad college English experience is often still close to the old-school "appreciation of books"

....but also that part of how the system changed is that the changes in what is taught, changed how people experience books, and that every self-perpetuating social effort is beneficial to somebody, but the benefits provided, and the beneficiaries, may not be the ones advertised.

Also, I put The Beginner's Guide on my Steam wish list, tho unfortunately the Wikipedia article on it opens with a big spoiler.

Oh, also, I googled enunciation theory, and it sounds like it comes from the same sources as that book on why novels are capitalist propaganda:

Colin MacCabe was representative of the growing resistance toward notions of classic realism, a resistance motivated by French Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, especially the work of Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan. MacCabe and others argued that cinema cannot reveal the real as if it were some transparent window onto the world. Rather, film must be analyzed as a set of generally contradictory discourses. ... By this point, Cahiers du cinéma was so actively opposed to conventional narrative norms that it had stopped reviewing any commercially released movies. Much of this highly politicized narrative theory prided itself on its strict Marxist foundations, but others, including the director François Truffaut (1932–1984), argued it had become so elitist that the articles were impenetrable for anyone lacking a Ph.D. in political science. ... The process of address, enunciation, structures the spectator's relation with the text. The enounced is always a product of enunciation, which, like language, is a social process. The analyst uncovers these marks of communication, which many classic realist films try to disguise and cover over. Thus, enunciation theory concentrates on syntax and cinematic modes of address that might be equivalent to those in verbal communication and calls for unmasking texts that pretend to tell their stories naturally. From this perspective, classic realist texts deceitfully pretend to be objective when they are actually complex, culturally determined discourses.

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