Fire the Canon

That discussion of literary theory I mentioned a couple of days ago was in large part about the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and whether it is a conservative organization and if it is who cares and if people do care why do they care. Kind of a ‘you have unfashionable trousers’ argument, as Chris Williams described it in a comment on ‘Not Either Silly.’ Bizarrely irrelevant. This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard the assumption, but it sounds just as fatuous the 500th time as it did the first. Henry makes the point in his post at CT.

Cultural Revolution then goes on to attack the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics for using such retrograde notions as “imagination,” “shared literary culture,” “serious,” and “classicists and modernists” in its statement of purpose, and to note how it received its initial start-up money from the conservative Bradley Foundation. So far, so pedestrian. What’s interesting about the post is not what it says, but what it assumes: that an interest in literature for literature’s sake is innately conservative. And, by extension, the question it doesn’t ask: why is it that an organization which is interested in studying literature and imagination is perceived as a conservative bulwark, and has no choice but to go to conservatives for funding and support?

Really. Very you have unfashionable trousers, if you ask me.

First, it’s by no means obvious that post-structuralist literary theory and its cousins are, in any real sense of the word, radical. Indeed, you could make a very strong case (Russell Jacoby is very good on this) that they’re substitutes for radicalism, and piss-poor ones at that…Second is the extraordinarily pervasive notion that there’s something inherently conservative about liking and valuing books for their own sake, rather than as grist for the mill of deconstructionism. I suspect that something like this is at the basis of Cultural Revolution’s suspicion of the Valve, and of ‘classicism,’ ‘imagination,’ etc. And it’s bullshit – there’s no reason why one can’t appreciate and enjoy cultural forms for their own sake…

So (I do have a point) it was interesting to read this article by Frank Lentricchia again (it’s in Flashback in case you ever want it and can’t remember who wrote it or how to find it) and see that it’s at the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics site. Because that’s what it’s about. The fact that it is possible to read literature without bothering about whether one is conservative or lefty or wearing unfashionable trousers. It’s interesting coming from Lentricchia because he was a fashionable trousers guy once, and then he got tired of himself.

I once managed to live for a long time, and with no apparent stress, a secret life with literature. Publicly, in the books I’d written and in the classroom, I worked as an historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, and without noticeable impediment, about literature as a political instrument. I once wrote that the literary word was like a knife, a hammer, a gun. I became a known and somewhat colorfully controversial figure, regularly excoriated in neo-conservative laments about the academy…When I grew up and became a literary critic, I learned to keep silent about the reading experiences of liberation that I’d enjoyed since childhood. With many of my generation, I believed that my ability to say the words “politics” and “literature” in the same breath was the only socially responsible way to affirm the value of literary study.

But, fortunately, fortunately, he did get over it. A lamb returned to the fold. A poor forlorn theorist escaped from the dungeon.

Then, seven years ago, I lost my professional bearing and composure. The actual crisis occurred in a graduate class, just as I was about to begin a lecture on Faulkner. Before I could get a word out, a student said, “The first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist.” I responded with a stare, but he was not intimidated. I was. He wanted to subvert me with what I thought crude versions of ideas that had made my academic reputation, and that had (as he told me before the semester began) drawn him to my class. And now I was refusing to be the critic he had every right to think I was. And I felt subverted. Later in the course, another student attacked Don DeLillo’s White Noise for what he called its insensitivity to the Third World. I said, “But the novel doesn’t concern the Third World. It’s set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World.” The student replied, “That’s the problem. It’s ethnocentric and elitist.” I had been, before that class, working hard to be generous. After that class, I didn’t want to be generous anymore and tried to communicate how unspeakably stupid I found these views, but had trouble staying fully rational.

So now he’s all like conservative and he eats lunch with Rush Limbaugh and stuff because he doesn’t think it’s interesting or clever to call Faulkner a racist or DeLillo an elitist. So much for black leather jackets eh.

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