Revolution and Reformation in Higher Education: Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U

It’s a sign of the fast changing times in higher education that I just finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and it already feels just a little bit dated–not terribly so, since it is a kind of futurist fiction about higher education written in 2010–and I feel frustrated at the notion that great new ideas and books to consider are solving yesterdays problems by the time I get around to them.  The shelf life for this kind of thing seems to be about a year and 2010 seems like an eon ago in both publishing and in higher education.  This is too bad because I actually think there is some important ethical thinking about higher education going on in the book that gets obscured both by the speed of the author and the speed with which the educational times are leaving even this book behind.

A few examples: the term MOOC, all the rage since the new cooperative ventures of Harvard, MIT YAle, Stanford and others, is barely mentioned as such–there are a couple of notes about it, but the notion that Ivy League schools would start en-mass to give their educational content away for free isn’t given much attention in this book (indeed, institutions of higher education seem largely to be the problem rather than a part of innovative solutions in Kamenetz’s view).  Similarly, the recent scandals and shennanigans in the for-profit sector barely rate a mention in for Kamenetz, and yet their pervasiveness at the present moment casts an inespcapable pall over the idea that that the for-profits are the best or even a good way forward.  Kamenetz offers a few gestures of critique at the for-profit educational industry, but seems more enamored of the innovations they can offer.  I’m less sanguine about the creative destruction of capitalism when it comes to education, and that shades my own reception of the book.

Overall I liked this book a great deal, but I do think the rosy and largely uncritical view of the present suggests a few problems.  The book catalogues the florid variety of things going on in higher education, championing every change or possibility that’s out there on an equal plane without too much discrimination.  There are a few gestures here and there toward critical thinking about these new possibilities, but mostly things fall into the following rough equations:

Current higher education system = exclusionary + hierarchical + expensive + tradition centered = bad

Anything new = good (or at least potential good)

On some level this strikes me as a convert’s story.  Kamenetz went to Yale College, for goodness sake, not Kaplan University.  So it may be that she is a kind of Martin Luther, or at least his publicist.  One well imagines Kamenetz in the reformation glorifying every sect that came down the pike as good because it wasn’t the catholic church and was returning power to the people.  Or the believer who wakes one morning to realize she believes nothing that her parents church believes, and so is fascinated and wildly attracted to the notion that some people out there worship turnips.

Not sure if anyone actually worships turnips, but you get the point;  its difficult in the midst of a reformation to discriminate and figure out who is Martin Luther, Menno Simons, John Calvin, or William Tyndale, and who is just a the latest crackpot televangelist hocking his wares.  Moreover, it takes a lot of discrimination–and probably more distance than we can afford right now–to figure out which parts of Luther, Simons, Calvin and Tyndale were the things worth keeping and which were, well, more like the crackpot televangelists of their own day.  Are Phoenix, Kaplan, and other for profits really helping poorer students in a way that the bad and exclusive traditional university is not, or are they really fleecing most of them in the name of hope and prosperity–something a good many televangelists and other American Hucksters are well known for?

This book is not where we’ll get that kind of analysis and considered attention about what we really ought to do next, where we ought to put what weight and influence we have.  And I admit, to some degree that’s asking this book to be something it isn’t We need books like this that are more provocations and manifestos than reflective analyses.  We also have to have someone that writes the revolution from the inside with all the enthusiasms that entails.

But that means this is a fast book, subject to the strengths and weaknesses that speed provides, one weakness being a little bit of factual sloppiness and a penchant for hasty and oversimplified analysis that sells well to the journalistic ear.  For instance Kamenetz uses a recurrent metaphor of the higher educational institution being a church that the contemporary world increasingly doesn’t need, and she draws an analogy by saying that statistics show that church attendance has dropped from 40 to 25 percent.  The problem is that the article she cites actually says that regular church attendance has remained consistently at 25 percent for the past couple of decades and has declined only slightly since 1950.  Other studies peg that number at 40 percent.  No study I know of (I’m not an expert)–and certainly not the one that Kamenetz cites–suggests its dropped from 40 to 25 percent.

Another annoying instance is a recurrent statement that administrators of higher education institutions are committed to maintaining the status quo.  This is spoken like someone who never actually talked to an administrator, or perhaps is only speaking about Yale College which for the most part really doesn’t need to change.  Nearly every administrator I know of or have talked to is thinking furiously, sometimes frantically, and sometimes creatively, about how our institutions can change to meet the challenges we face and better serve the public with our various educational missions.  Unless it is the case that Kamenetz is arguing that institutions are simply for the status quo because they are institutions and unwilling to pass quietly in to the night.  But this would jejune.  It sounds good to the anti-institutional American ear, but its doubtful policy for advances in higher education.

These kinds of issues individually are small, but collectively they are annoying and to someone who is involved in the institutional side of higher education and is informed about the issues, they are glaring.  What it might mean is that the book won’t get the kind of attention in higher education institutions that it deserves.

Which is too bad since I think the book ought to be required reading for administrators, if only to debate its urgency.  What the book lacks in critical discrimination it makes up for with passionate and detailed pronouncement–a good sermon can be good for the academic soul.  For one thing, it might help us realize that the way things have always been done isn’t even the way things are being done now for an increasingly larger and larger share of the population.  Just as churches change–however slowly–in the face of historical movements and transformations, higher education is and will be changing as well.  Many of the ideas detailed in Kamenetz’s book help us see the extent to which those changes are occurring and lend new urgency to the question of what those changes mean for us in higher education.  There’s even a good deal available that could help us to think about how to best reform our own practices to meet our current highest ideals, rather than seeing this as a war of good and evil over the minds of the next generation.

I was especially drawn to Kamenetz’s notion of a community of practice–something she drew from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger:

Such communities  are defined by shared engagement in a task and shared understanding of goals and means to reach them.  In the classic progression of a community of practice, an appentice presents herself to the community and takes on simple beginning tasks at the elbow of an expert.  Everyone is participating in real-world tasks, not academic exercises., so the learner’s actions have consequences right away.  This stage is known as “legitimate peripheral participation.’  As she progresses she continuosly reinforces her learning by teaching others as well.  In a community of practice it is understood that youare just as likely to learn from the mistakes of fellow beginners, or from people with just slightly more experience, as from wizened elders.  Virtual communities of practice are thriving on the internet, among bloggers, gamers, designers and programmers.  These groups have little choice but to teach each other–information technology has been changing so fast for the past few decades that traditional schools and curricula can’t keep up.”

This last, of course, if very true.  I think the question of time for learning and play in higher education is a big problem, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.  But even given that, I’m struck by the ways what she describes seems characteristic of the practice already of Digital Humanists as I understand the basics of this particular practice. Something like theHomer Multitext project that includes students from first year Greek classes to fourth year Greek majors is one instance of this.

Beyond this, I am struck by the ethical impulses entailed here and in much of Kamenetz’s work.  She points out that the original meanings of words we associate with universities had to do with something like this notion of community–university and college pointing to the notion of guild or community, a gathering of like-minded people pursuing a common vocation.

This ethical impulse in Kamenetz’s work is what I find most attractive and most usable.  She connects her manifesto to the work of Paul Freire and other catholic priest/intellectuals who were deeply invested in the notion of universal active and engaged education for what my church growing up called “the least of these.”  This is a notion that faculty at my faith-based institution can root themselves in and catch a vision for, and one that I think many other public-minded intellectuals could embrace regardless of the particulars of their beliefs.

What would it mean for us to take advantage of the latest innovations in technology, not because it could take save the institution money and not because it could save faculty time, but what if we could imagine it as a way of taking what we have to those who have need of it?

What if the world were really our classroom, not just the 30 students in front of us who can afford (or not afford) to be there?

What difference would it make to our practice, our politics, our thinking, teaching, and scholarship?

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Are writers afraid of the dark?

In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

(via Instapaper)

I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is.  In some sense literature is a coping mechanism.  I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside.  It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is?  Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do.  Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding.  There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!”  Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution.  Well.  The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.

Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects.  It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living.  Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life.  Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera.  Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps.  It would be better to ask what we would do without them.  The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves.  It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched.  It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.

Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter.  The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.

Don Delillo: Point Omega

Point OmegaPoint Omega by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m learning to trust my son’s literary taste in the same way I do his musical acumen. That is, at 16 he is far hipper and knowing than I have the energy to even try to be, knowing I would fail. He’s also several years past insistently recommending the latest animal fable from Brian Jacques. (A guilty father’s admission: I don’t think I could have taken many more years of toiling through the literally untranslatable renditions of ferrets speaking in what appears to be a working class Scottish brogue.) This faith in my son’s judgment was rewarded again a couple of weeks ago as we were flying out together to see my parents in Oklahoma City. He finished Point Omega on the leg from Cincinnati to Dallas, and said I really needed to read it before we got home.

That the book is readable on a plane flight into flyover country says nothing about the substance, though I will say that there are times Delillo is getting away with being Delillo. Not least is the fact that he can disguise a novella as a novel with large print and widely spaced lines and still get away with charging novel prices. More importantly, I thought the first third to a half of this very short book required a lot of patience, with the reader saying, “I know this must be good; it’s Don Delillo.” The first third is filled with the exceedingly detached and ruminant monologue of a documentary film maker and his subject, an academician who has lent his talents to the government to justify a war. The book as a whole is on one level a meditation on the mystifications that led us to prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for th eplotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”

He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.

“They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. they think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”

He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. I knew what he was, or what he was supposed to be, a defense intellectual, without the usual credentials, and when I used the term it made him tense his jaw with a proud longing for the early weeks and months, before he began to understand that he was occupying an empty seat.

“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”

“What reality?”

“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resmble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

This is vintage Delillo in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure this dry detachment would have born up for another fifty pages. We get it pretty quickly, the immorality of the abstracted intellectual. What makes the story go, finally, is his having to come face to face with flesh and blood loss, forced in to a recognition that he had become so abstracted from his life that he had only experienced it and those who he should have been caring about as an absence.

Ultimately in novels we care first about relationships and not ideas. Or, rather, we only care about ideas to the degree that they bear the weight of relationships or corrupt relationships or get fleshed out in relationships. And so Raskolnikov, the man of ideas in Crime and Punishment, fascinates not so much because of his ideas but because he makes them flesh and blood and bone. With an axe. What makes Dickens live is not the sociological abstraction of oppressive class circumstance, but the orphaning of Little Nell. Delillo follows in that line in that what makes the novel work is not ultimately the grand ideas of the abstracted intellectual but the ways in which those grand ideas fracture man and wife, father and daughter, man from himself.

That is not in itself profoundly new; if that were as far as Delillo’s book went we’d have to say it was an interesting enough take on the villany of intellectuals. We’ve had that since Faust. But as the book concludes, we recognize that the violence of abstraction is not so much a property of intellectuals as of all living in this twilight of the western world, all those of us who watch the unfolding of images on the screen of our lives, substituting the slow motion replay of dropping bombs and exploding lives for the event, experiencing that violence as an aesthetic object worthy of our repeated fascination, image abstracted from meaning, until the death of others becomes indistinguishable from other means of entertainment in an entertaining world.

Delillo ultimately is a moral visionary. The darkness of his vision is not simply that he sees a world gone bad–though he indeed sees that. Rather it is that one root of that badness lies in the violence we visit on the world through our ways of looking at it. It is in the looking that we can’t escape our own complicity.

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Reading Readers: Notes on Alberto Manguel–I

I’ve been reading Alberto Manguel‘s A Reader on Reading.  Some random thoughts:

A Reader On Reading Alberto manguel

x—“Over the years, my experience, my tastes, my prejudices have changed:  as the days go by, my memory keeps reshelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library;  my words and my world—except for a few constant landmarks—are never one and the same.  Heraclitus’s bon mot about time applies equally well to my reading:  “you never dip into the same book twice.””

–In my own experience, a central experience, if not THE central experience through which my tastes, prejudices and memories have changed has been the experience of reading itself.  That is, books, are not infinitely malleable pieces of dough to be made in to what the reader wants them to be at a whim—what seems to be Roland Barthes notion in The Death of the Author. On the other hand, neither do books show the same and constant aspect regardless of time and circumstance.   Rather books are agents of change, shaping me in to something different than what I was before.  I do not say, as might seem logical, that books shape us into the readers they need.  This might follow from something like Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader or the Holland’s theory of the Ideal reader.  I don’t think books have that kind of agency or that authors have that kind of knowingness.  But some books are like mountains that must be scaled, others like fires that must be endured, others streams to be forded.  A book’s agency is found in the kind of action it demands of me, and it’s nature changes for me to the degree that I am changed by the action it affords.  I may by turns and by age turn from the mountain as too daunting, gasp and crawl halfway up its face before giving up in or scale it with the ease of an Olympian.  In every case I am experience the mountain as it is, as it shows its face to me.  It is not that the Olympian truly knows the mountain for what it is, because the climber who scales its height without a second breath cannot see what is there to seen by the man crawling in exhaustion, his breath in the dirt.

x—“I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines.  And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”

–I wonder, if it is beyond the author’s intentions and the reader’s hopes,  how is it that books make us wiser?  We cannot say, I think, that the words on the page have a power unto themselves apart from their human utterance and reception.  Manguel ridicules this notion as a form of magical thinking elsewhere in the book.  But what is it then, in the experience of books that makes us wiser?  I agree with the sentiment, but can’t define the agency of such making.  Indeed, it often seems to me that when writers—fiction writers at least—set out to impart wisdom they more often  impart tedium and irritation.  Fiction writers should not be oracles; those who try would be better off becoming essayists or preachers.  Nor am I particular taken by readers who approach books as if they contain wisdom, as if Melville or Faulkner or Morrison were a secondary scripture.  If there is wisdom, it does seem to me that the wisdom might come as an accidental gift of the act of reading itself, not in what is read or who is reading or who is being read.  But at this point I may merely be trying to be oracular.

Bodies and Books

My good friend Julia Kasdorf wrote a book called “The Body and the Book,” broadly taking up the theme of contrast and connections between intellectuality/textuality and embodiment/materiality.  Karin Littau seems tolittau-theories-of-reading be mining a similar territory in Theories of Reading:  Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, a book I just started in on, though Littau is explicitly interested in reading as a bodily or material act, one in which affect more than cognition takes a center stage.

A couple of quotations and impressions from the early going:

Discussing early perspectives on novel reading on page 3–“William Wordsworth saw [the novel providing] ‘deluges of idle and extravagant stories.’ Insofar as ferocious novel reading also fostered disconnected and ‘higgledy-piggledy’ practices of reading (Schenda 1988: 60), it was thought that, ‘if persisted in’, it would have the effect of ‘enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies and undermining the vigour of nations’ (Austin 1874: 251).  Like all addictions, those afflicted demanded more and more of the same:  more to read, more excitement, more tears, horror and thrills.  Bibliomania is therefore part of a larger cultural malaise specifically associated with modernity:  sensory overstimulation.  From the perspective of a theory of reading it shows that reading, insofar as it is either bad or good for the reader’s health, is in both instances conceived in physicalist terms.”

I think Littau is right here.  One of my commenters on yesterdays post apparently objected to the notion that we require permission to read.  But I really think I’m write about this for a big swath of Middle America.  There’s a long history of reading being seen as deleterious and slothful.  So in some sense we had to turn it in to a moral activity.  We had to quit reading for pleasure plain and simple and had to start reading for aesthetic experience, or meaning, or as a form or religion, or in order to improve ourselves.  This is deeply endemic to English deparments, and, I think, is one of our biggest failings;  we fail to account adequately for the grosser affective pleasures of narrative art which bring us our students in the first place.  Instead we have to imagine how literature improves their minds in order to justify our budgets.

I think that although I would grant Littau her premises here, that I would go beyond her simple statement of reading’s physicality to point out that these early and later continuing critiques of excessive reading have a moral dimension to them.  The sense that reading might have deleterious effects on the body, or, alternatively, that it awoke the passions and so had a deleterious effect upon self-control, both spoke to a much broader ethos than the simplistic enlightenment division between mind and body really captures.  There is a certain morality of the body associated with Christianity that isn’t captured in the simplistic notion that Christians despise the body.  Rather the body is to be situated and used and built up in particular kinds of ways because it is the temple of the holy spirit, and so forth.  Thus the physicality that Littau notes occasions a moral dilemma for the reader–one, frankly, that I still experience in a way.  Well, I’m reading, but I could really be out helping the homeless, or stumping for Obama, or doing other good works.  Or, more basically, I could be working out and trying to shave off all the pounds that I’ve put on over the course of my 49 years.  I truly suspect that if I read half as much and used the time to work out, I would be healthier (perhaps wealthier, perhaps wiser).  This is a judgment of relative goods, but the critique of reading isn’t as dumb and outmoded as it first appears.  How we use our time is an ethical conundrum, and so the fact of reading isn’t self-evidently justified, however many good moral benefits we may tend to attach to it as devotees of books.

From page 10–“Thus, the bulk of twentieth centiury reader-oriented theories, with some notable exceptions from within feminist theory, are concerned predominantly either with how readers make sense of a text (Culler, Fish, Iser, Jauss, Gadamer), how texts frustrate readers’ attempts at making sense (de Man, Miller, Hartmen, Bloom, Derrida), or how readers resist the meanings of certain texts (Fetterley, Radway, Bobo).  Thus, even when theorists turned away from an overly textualist approach to a more contextual, or politically engaged, approach, the production of meaning is still the primary concern.  By contrast, theories of reading before the twentieth century were also concerned with readers’ sensations.”

I think Littau is really on the mark here.  I remember sitting around with Jim Berger at a coffee shop called Kiari’s when I was teaching at George Mason University.  Jim and I would reflect on the fact that we didn’t know how to talk with students about the pleasure of literature, and didn’t quite know how to lead students into taking pleasure in more complicated and difficult texts.  I know that one of the great benefits of my undergraduate education was certain the ability to make and discover meaning in texts.  However, another huge benefit was learning how to take pleasure in things I could never before have imagined as pleasurable (Joyce’s Ulysses is NOT a natural taste).  I think we’ve shied away from pleasure as beneath the “serious” pursuit of ethical and metaphysical views of literature, but I wonder whether there isn’t an ethical dimension to the means and manner and ranges of our pleasure.  Finding ways to take pleasure in things that aren’t in our inherited bad of tricks is, it seems to me, a sign of growth and maturity and even, in some sense, an act of opening the self to otherness, a kind of ethical stance in and of itself.

I’m interested in how to take our pleasures seriously, how to learn our pleasures and how to learn from them.

Ethics of Reading

Published the following letter to the editor in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Yes, I am becoming “that guy.” You know, the odd ball, slightly unkempt if not unwashed, who writes letters to the editor. As I think of it, blogging is a bit like letters to the editor on roids. Roid rage and all.

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Deconstruction and Reading

To the Editor:

Peter Brooks begins “The Ethics of Reading” (The Chronicle Review, February 8) by noting his dismay at J.M. Coetzee’s association of torture with the reading practices of “the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase.” Coetzee’s association is less surprising than Brooks’s shock; the link between reading and violence is nothing new.

The purported existence of links between how we read and ethical corruption or political violence is a commonplace in complaints about contemporary theory. Indeed, the link between reading and moral corruption goes back much further than this, found as it is throughout Western history — especially since Gutenberg. Faust is, after all, nothing if not a reader.

The opening line of Brooks’s essay points to a peculiar construal of both reading and ethics — one that, I think, can be found in a variety of other “ethics of reading” theories, particularly that of J. Hillis Miller. Says Brooks, “I’ve long been invested in the notion that teaching to read literature carefully, seriously, reflectively can be an ethical act.” Reading here seems to be conceived of primarily as a procedure or a technique; rigorously following correct procedures ensures or at least encourages an ethical outcome.

Brooks casts about to find an appropriate place to lay the blame for reading practices that have led to the infamous memo on torture allegedly written by John Yoo. He comes up with inept graduate students, or perhaps just people who didn’t attend Yale: “It must be admitted that the lessons of deconstruction in the wrong hands — less adept than its original practitioners — led to facile untetherings of meaning.” Ironically, he then points to Paul de Man as a practitioner of “essentially ethical” reading in his attempts “to understand how texts mean and how language works.”

To be fair, Brooks is pointing yet further back to Reuben Brower, de Man’s own mentor in the skills of reading. However, I have my doubts that de Man’s close reading skills did much to save him from his own readings of Jewish existence in Europe.

I have no interest in attacking de Man’s character or revisiting his history. But maybe part of the problem is, in fact, how he taught us to imagine reading. Why would we begin to imagine that pursuing a rigorous technique to its endpoint is inherently ethical? Fascists were certainly champions of the rigorous pursuit of techniques and industrious in their pursuit of efficiency.

While the ability to read closely and industriously and with technical proficiency may further the ends of people seeking to do good, it seems just as plausible that the ability to do so can serve the ends of those who seek to do ill. We accept that great artists may not be great people, and that their art may even serve both good and bad ends at the same time. Why should we believe differently about great readers?

http://chronicle.com
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 26, Page B29

Reading and Redemption

I saw Atonement last night, the Oscar-nominated film based on Ian McEwan’s award winning novel. I’m kind of vaguely interested in what happens to novels when they become films, but more so in films and novels that are in some way about the process of reading and writing. I have no idea about McEwan’s novel itself—I hope I can get to it someday—but I found the conceptual interaction between visual and textual storytelling—between viewing and reading—very layered and complex in the film. To some degree compelling, but also troubling.

Because I get to these things about three weeks after everyone’s seen the film, I’m going to assume whoever reads this post has already watched the movie (fair warning if you think the ending is given away). The interplay between reading/viewing and writing/performing is there throughout the film, of course. The main character, Briony, is a budding novelist of 13 whose urgent hormone-driven plays are transparently presented as sublimated efforts to deal with her adolescent crush on a older young man, Robbie, who is in love with her older sister, Cecilia. This love of a young girl for an older man is perversely reversed when another young man about the age of Robbie rapes her young friend.

Briony has seen the rape, but using her well-practiced imagination, and perhaps revenging herself on Robbie for loving her sister instead of her, accuses Robbie of the deed. Briony’s decision to fabricate Robbie’s role is caught in the following clip. Too bad it doesn’t start just a bit earlier, where we see the two girls building a story based on their own fears, needs, and class stereotypes.

“Atonement” is, of course, about whether or not one can atone for the past. Can the past be repaired? Even to some degree, does Briony need to atone for the past? Can a young girl of 13 be held responsible for an act, however reprehensible, that can readily be understood as an act of immaturity rather than an act of adult malice? Even, can any action by a much older and much changed Briony count in any way for atonement of sins by the younger child she resembles but in no way repeats. Are our older selves, in so many ways discontinuous with the children that we were, even capable of repenting for sins that were in some very real sense committed by someone else? This distance is registered in the film by having actresses who are similar in appearance—at least in, implausibly, retaining the same haircut for approximately 60 years—but who are otherwise obviously very different people “playing” the same person. Again, this question of atonement is perversely registered in that the actual adult rapist “atones” for the past by eventually marrying the young girl he raped when she comes of age. While the true agent of brutality goes on to live out the Western mythology of human fulfillment in marriage, Robbie and Cecilia are forever separated by the sins of someone else.

For my purposes I’m interested in the layered question of whether writing and reading—whether an act of and engagement with the imagination—can atone for sins committed in the world. How does the imagination act on the world? This is most pronounced in the conclusion of the film where we cut to a latter-day television interview with an elderly and ill Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has just written her final novel, final because she has realized that she has incurable and progressive dementia that is gradually destroying her ability to remember and to use language.

We immediately understand as viewers that the movie we have just been watching is this last novel—rendered visually. We have been the reader/viewers of the novel, which is supposedly autobiographical. However Briony/Vanessa Redgrave informs us that the story didn’t really end as she left it in the scenes we had just seen. Robbie did not return from Europe to be with Cecilia. He died on the beaches of Dunkirk from sepsis. Briony is never reconciled to Cecilia—as the film had just made it appear. Instead, Briony had been too cowardly to find her sister and make the attempt at reconciliation. Cecilia character died in the bombing of London, living alone and estranged from her family because she had refused to believe that Robbie was a rapist and had refused to renounce her love for him.

The elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony explains her decision to give the novel/movie a happy ending for two reasons—readers could not accept the reality, and because the imagined ending was an act of repair, giving Robbie and Cecilia a life of joy together—symbolized by life on Dover Beach—that had eluded them because of Briony’s deception.

The two reasons, I think, work in very different direction, and finally don’t completely hold together. I’m not completely taken with the notion of readers needing the happy ending. It’s true, of course, that Hollywood films and any number of romance novels make their way in the world on the hunger for uncomplicated fantasy. But is it the case that human beings are so unused to the idea that the innocent die while the guilty go free and live happily ever after that we refuse it in our literature? Indeed, isn’t it our literature that teaches us this repeatedly. It feeds the generally tragic sense of reader-geeks that their own nobility is tragically unrecognized in the world at large. It is played out by English professors who grump that their C students get jobs right out of college that pay more than they make as tenured professors.

Still, this notion does comport with the general tenor of the film. Briony’s sin is first and foremost an act of the imagination. She “sees” what she wants to see so that it will reflect her own story in the world. Her refusal to allow the world to be more complicated that her own seeing is the source of her original accusation. In a very real sense, Briony’s imagination is what she must atone for. Imagination is her original sin—her writing is, after all, a particular way of reading the world that refuses to let the world be what it is truthfully. Her imagination is a thirteen-year-old act of violence on the world, and results in very real violence to many people down the line.

And so, can we really buy the elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony’s assertion that she is somehow redeeming the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, giving them what they couldn’t otherwise have in reality? Something she wants to understand as an act of generosity and even love. I’m not sure. To some degree this could be connected with the work of someone like Ernst Bloch who insisted that the utopian function of art was to say “And Yet” to life, to insist that “reality” did not have the final say if that final say was understood to be beyond the act of human agency, human shaping, human imagination. In the same fashion, if atonement is possible, it seems to me that atonement must be an act that includes the imagination.

Still, is this an act that the imagination can carry out in reference to our own actions in the past? No human action is every finished in and of itself. Rather, it is read and reread, and its meaning accrues and changes by the means and contexts through which it is reread. I sometimes tell students I prefer to understand God as a reader than a writer. Redemption is an act of reading and discovering the possibilities in a life-text that could not have been imagined by those individuals and other historical agents who brought that life-text into being in the first place. But I guess what makes me leery of this particular act is Briony’s act of self-justifying imagination. Can Briony atone for the failures of her imagination by another act of the imagination that further falsifies the lives of those that she has damaged, however “innocently” or unknowingly? I tend to think that this isn’t atonement but self-justification.

On the other hand, what we finally get from Briony-Vanessa Redgrave is not imagination as atonement, but a very different secularized Christian practice—Confession. Briony apparently tells the truth to the reader at the end of the story, and the reader/viewer is the only person in the position to forgive. Briony’s confession of what actually happened is, at least putatively, something that removes her own imagination as an agent in her own redemption. She no longer writes someone different from who she is, but says who she is and what she has done and failed to do, and what the consequences have been. The production of art that moves a reader is no compensation for the evil that produces it. But the frank confession of the truth is a work of art in which we recognize ourselves. We forgive her because we see in her all the unthinking dishonesties by which we have harmed others and ourselves. In her need for us, we recognize our own need for forgiving readers.