Barack Obama’s Waste Land; President as First Reader

GalleyCat reported today that the new biography of Barack Obama gives an extensive picture of Obama’s literary interests, including a long excerpt of a letter in which Obama details his engagement with TS Eliot and his signature poem, The Waste Land. Obama’s analysis:

Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

A Portrait of Barack Obama as a Literary Young Man – GalleyCat.

For a 22 year old, you’d have to say this is pretty good. I’m impressed with the nuance of Obamas empathetic imagination, both in his ability to perceive the differences between the three great conservative poets of that age, and in his ability to identify with Eliot against his own political instincts. This is the kind of reading we’d like to inculcate in our students, and I think it lends credence to the notion that a mind trained in this kind of engagement might be better trained for civic engagement than those that are not. But too often even literature profs are primarily readers of the camp, so to speak, lumping those not of their own political or cultural persuasion into the faceless, and largely unread, camp of the enemy, and appreciating without distinction those who further our pet or current causes.

This is too bad, reducing a richer sense of education for civic engagement into the narrower and counterproductive sense of reading as indoctrination. I think the older notion was a vision of education that motivated the founding fathers. Whatever one thinks of his politics, passages like this suggest to me that Obama could sit unembarrassed with Jefferson and Adams discussing in all seriousness the relationship between poetry and public life. It would be a good thing to expect this of our presidents, rather than stumbling upon it by accident.

Distanced and Close Reading in literary study: Metaphors for love

I am old enough now to begin sentences with the phrase “I am old enough…”  Seriously, though, I am old enough now to feel like I have lived through one revolution, into a new orthodoxy, and now the experience of a new revolution in literary studies.  In the ongoing debates I hear about the digital humanities versus whatever other kind of humanities happens to be at hand, I keep having this vertiginous sense of deja vu, as if I’m hearing the same arguments I heard two decades ago, but transformed in to a key just different enough that I can’t tell whether today’s debates are mere variations on a theme or some genuinely new frame of discourse.

The song that I think is remaining the same is the divide between the proponents of what gets called “distanced reading,”  which in some hands is a shorthand for all things digital humanities (if it’s digital, it must be distanced as compared to the human touch of paper, ink, and typewriters–how the industrial period came to be the sign and symbol of all thing human and intimate I am not entirely clear), and close reading which is somehow taken to be THE form of intimate human contact with the text.

This division is exemplified in Stanley Fish’s recent essay on the digital humanities in the New York times, an argument that has the usual whiff of caustic Fishian insight leavened with what I take to be a genuine if wary respect for what he sees in the practices of distanced reading.  Nevertheless, for Fish, it is finally close reading that is genuinely the work of the humane critic devoted to intimacy with the text:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

Ironically, in an earlier period it was Fish and precisely this kind of close reading (as practiced by deconstructionists) that was descried for its lack of seriousness, for the way it removed literature from the realm of human involvement and into the play of mere textuality .  By contrast, the distanced readers in those days imagined themselves as defenders of humanity (or, since humanism was a dirty word, at least the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the miserable, the huddled masses).  Historicism read widely and broadly in the name of discourse, and proclaimed itself a liberating project, ferreting out the hidden political underbelly in a multitude of texts and considering literary criticism to be an act of responsible justice-seeking over and against the decadent jouissance-seekers of post-structuralism.

A recent blog by Alex Reid takes up this same criticism of what he describes as the Close Reading industry, arguing for the ways digitization can free us from the tyranny of the industrialized close reader:

In the composition classroom, the widgets on the belt are student papers. If computers can read like people it’s because we have trained people to read like computers. The real question we should be asking ourselves is why are we working in this widget factory? And FYC essays are perhaps the best real world instantiation of the widget, the fictional product, produced merely as a generic example of production. They never leave the warehouse, never get shipped to market, and are never used for anything except test runs on the factory floor. 

In an earlier period, it was again the close-readers who were accused of being mechanistic, dry, and scientific as putatively more humanistic readers accused New Critics of an unfeeling scientism in their formalist attitude toward the text, cutting out every human affect in the quest for a serious and scientific study of literature.

I wonder at root, whether this is the controlling metaphor, the key to which all our tunes in literary and cultural studies are played, a quest for the human that is not merely scientific, and yet an unrepressed desire for the authority of the scientist to say things with security, to wear the mantle of authority that our culture apparently only believes a statistical method can endow.

It is probably a mark against my character that I tend to be a both/and pragmatist as a thinker.  I do not buy the notion that distanced reading is inconsequential, or some how less about truth or less serious than the close rhetorical readings that Fish invokes.  At the same time, I am not too given to the euphoric and pugnacious challenges that can sometimes characterize digital humanities responses to the regnant forms of literary criticism.  At their best, Fishian forms of close reading are endowed not simply with acute attention, but with attention that seems to give birth to a form of wisdom that only attentiveness and close examination can provide, the kind of insistent close reading that led Gerard Manley Hopkins to seek the “inscape” of individual instances beyond categories, rather than simply the ways in which individuals fit into the vast landscapes popular in his post-romantic period.

I was reminded of this need to attend to the close properties of the individual use of language again in a recent article on Chaucer in the Chronicle. The writer attends to the detail of Chaucer’s language in a way that seems to reveal something important about the ways in which we are human.

translating Chaucer is like translating any other foreign language: The words are different from one language to the next. And then comes the third category, the most fascinating and the most aggravating because it is the trickiest: the false cognates, words that look like they should mean what they do in Modern English, but don’t. False cognates are especially aggravating, and fascinating when they carry their Middle and Modern English meanings simultaneously. These are exciting moments, when we see, through a kind of linguistic time-lapse photography, Chaucer’s language on its way to becoming our own.

In Middle English, for instance, countrefete means “to counterfeit,” as in “to fake,” but it also has the more flattering meaning of “to imitate.” Corage has not only the Modern English sense of bravery but also, frequently, overtones of sexual energy, desire, or potency. Corage takes its roots from the word coeur, or “heart,” and transplants them slightly southward. The same is true for solas, or “solace.” The “comfort,” “satisfaction,” or “pleasure” it entails is often sexual.

Lust might seem to pose no problem for the modern reader. Yet in the 14th century, the word, spelled as it is today, could mean any kind of desire or pleasure, though around that time it was beginning to carry a sexual connotation, too. And lest it seem as if false cognates always involve sex, take sely, or “silly.” It most often means “blessed” or “innocent,” as well as “pitiful” and “hapless,” but “foolish” was making its way in there, too.

A sentence like “The sely man felte for luste for solas” could mean “The pitiful man felt desire for comfort.” It could just as likely mean: “The foolish man felt lust for sex.” In Chaucer’s hands, it could mean both at once.

Chaucer was fully aware of the slipperiness of language. He delights in it; he makes his artistic capital from it. He is an inveterate punster. The Wife of Bath, for example, repeatedly puns on the word queynte (eventually the Modern English “quaint”). In the 14th century, the word means not only “curious” or “fascinating” but also the curious part of her female anatomy that most fascinates her five husbands. What’s more, the slipperiness of language gives Chaucer the tools to form his famous irony and ambiguity. If the way-too-pretty Prioress is “nat undergrowe” (“not undergrown”), how big is she?

(via Instapaper)

 These kinds of particularities of language are the worthy objects of our attention as literary scholars.  At the same time,  I do not think we need say that distanced reading plays no role in our understanding of such peculiarities.  A Chaucer project on the order of the Homer Multi-text, might actually deepen and multiply our understanding of Chaucer’s slipperiness and originality.  At the same time, vast database-driven analyses of every text written within a hundred years of Chaucer might allow us to discover the kinds of linguistic sources he was drawing on and manipulating anew for his own purposes, they might show us new creativities we had not imagined, or they might show us things we had taken to be unique were fairly common stock and trade.
These kinds of knowledges could not be derived from a contest between methods, but only from a reading marked by attentiveness, skill and desire, one willing to draw on any resource to understand what one wishes to know, which used to be a metaphor for love.

My blog is better than your blog: literature and evaluation on the net

Sebastian Mary over at if:book has a new post that takes up some more about the problematics of trying to “do literature” on the web. Among many other things, Mary says the following:

‘Literature’ here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say ‘literary’ I mean things fitting a loose cluster of – sometimes self-contradictory – ideas including, but not limited to:

the importance of traceable authorship
the value of ‘proper’ language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality

And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of ‘literary’ is that it’s a broadcast-only model. If you don’t believe me, check out any writers’ community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. ‘Literary’ works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don’t – or at least have never been expected – to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it’s so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it’s so damn slippery.)


Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of ‘literary’ is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there’s no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch – but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints – or create new ones: as O’Reilly’s guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won’t. And hence much of what’s reified as ‘literary’, online, ceases to carry much weight.

I like a lot of what Mary is groping after here, but I would offer a few caveats. The notion of the “literary” is not coextensive with the creation of books, but came in to being much later than books came in to being. You could trace the notion of the literary to the development of Gutenberg’s press, but even that would be a bit anachronistic. Our current use of the term “literary” doesn’t really fully develop until late in the eighteenth, early in the nineteenth century, and only becomes a full-blow ideology in the middle and late nineteenth century. Cf Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature.

This suggests that simply doing away with our sense of the literary might not do away with our sense of the need to categorize and create hierarchies. Criticism is as inevitable as breathing, said T.S. Eliot, and he’s right. Even as you read this blog you are evaluating and criticizing, if only to say that this blog is or is not worth the reading time. Cf Barbara herrnstein Smith in Contingencies of Value. To be sure, the methods and means by which we come to determine what is worth doing is very different on the web than it was in Eliot’sSamuel Johnson London, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Indeed, literary criticism as we know it began with Samuel Johnson and others who were trying to figure out, among other things, what was worth their time to read.

One response to this, typical on the web, is to say “Well, I can read anything I damn well please. And who are you to think differently?” But this kind of attitude doesn’t hold up for very long. Of course, anyone CAN read anything they want to read, just as people CAN sit in their barcaloungers and drink beer all day. But we constantly evaluate and imagine human activities in terms of what kinds of social worlds they make possible. To admit this isn’t to be an elitist. To do otherwise is to imagine a world where I could care less if Bob down the street never bothers to learn to read a book more difficult than “See Dick Run” since, after all, its his personal preference or part of his culture. That’s fine, but if his kids and grandkids imitate him, we’ve got not a personal preference but a social problem. At least in any society that we are currently living in.

All of this is merely an aside to say criticism happens. And it is and will continue to happen on the web. For instance, this week’s New York Review of Books contains an excellent article, a review of John Broughton’s Wikipedia, The Missing Manual. The review suggests that Wikipedia is entering a mature middle age. One sign of that middle age is a developing set of rules and hierarchies. NicholsonThe Missing manual Baker writes of the chaotic creative destruction–and destructive creativity–that characterized wikipedia in the early days, before going on:

At least, that’s how it used to be. Now there’s a quicker path to proficiency: John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, part of the Missing Manual series, overseen by The New York Times‘s cheery electronics expert, David Pogue. “This Missing Manual helps you avoid beginners’ blunders and gets you sounding like a pro from your first edit,” the book says on the back. In his introduction, Broughton, who has himself made more than 15,000 Wikipedia edits, putting him in the elite top 1,200 of all editors—promises “the information you absolutely need to avoid running afoul of the rules.” And it’s true: this manual is enlightening, well organized, and full of good sense. Its arrival may mark a new, middle-aged phase in Wikipedia’s history; some who read it will probably have wistful longings for the crazy do-it-yourself days when the whole proj-ect was just getting going. In October 2001, the first Wikipedian rule appeared. It was:

Ignore all rules: If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.

The “ignore all rules” rule was written by co-founder Larry Sanger and signed by co-founder Jimbo Wales, along with WojPob, AyeSpy, OprgaG, Invictus, Koyaanis Qatsi, Pinkunicorn, sjc, mike dill, Taw, GWO, and Enchanter. There were two dissenters listed, tbc and AxelBoldt.

Nowadays there are rules and policy banners at every turn—there are strongly urged warnings and required tasks and normal procedures and notability guidelines and complex criteria for various decisions—a symptom of something called instruction creep: defined in Wikipedia as something that happens “when instructions increase in number and size over time until they are unmanageable.” John Broughton’s book, at a mere 477 pages, cuts through the creep. He’s got a whole chapter on how to make better articles (“Don’t Suppress or Separate Controversy”) and one on “Handling Incivility and Personal Attacks.”

To be sure, these rules and hierarchies function differently than they did elsewhere, but they function nonetheless. Among the consequences of these rules and hierarchies is that some things that are written endure in ways that some other things do not. If not forever, then at least for a while.

I think, then, that we might say that we just haven’t developed our understanding yet of what might be possible with the net, and so we haven’t developed aesthetic categories appropriate to writing literature on the net.

The other thing to say here is that Sebastian Mary seems to assume that the inherent and necessary character of the net is the interactive elements of Web 2.0. I’m not sure why we need to make this leap. It is like saying that because something can be done, then doing that thing is the only appropriate thing to do. I kind of buy Mary’s assertion that the literary is about the completed object. But it’s not clear why we can’t imagine the web as a space that has both completed objects and never completed interactive spaces.

Indeed, blogs function in some respects as aspects of both, and I’m intrigued by how this could be a clue to a literature of the future. A blog post is, in some respects a completed object. Admittedly, i go back and rewrite and change things here and there, but at somepoint that kind of revision comes to an end. And in some ways it’s no different than the kind of endless revision that Whitman did, but eventually stopped doing on leaves of grass.

Commentary, however, doesn’t have to come to an end. I’m still getting responses to some of the first blog posts I wrote. Theoretically, these posts could remain objects for commentary for…well…forever. I’m not so vain as to believe that these posts are worth that, but it’s possible to imagine creating a literature that would be more or less permanent and fixed that is accompanied by a commentary that is endless. In this sense, the text would be both fixed and endlessly changing to the degree that people would read not only my fantasized literary post, but also the months, years, decades, centuries…who knows…of commentary that would accompany it.

Thus, I think I disagree with mary’s assumption that the web is inherently interactive and thus opposed to the literary for a variety of reasons, even while I agree that we haven’t quite figured out how to bridge the gap between what’s been in place related to that term, and what may be coming in to being.

Emerson and the Umpires of taste

It’s not particular fashionable to admit that I love Emerson. Indeed, for as long as I’ve been in literary studies, Emerson and the other Romantics have been the arch-enemies that others have sought to dismiss, disparage, demote, decenter, damn, and deconstruct. Among other things. As an undergraduate this had a religious and an aesthetic cast. On a religious scale,Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson was a heretic who could say in all seriousness that poets are liberating gods, that we are part and parcel of God, and that he was a transcendatal eyeball (or something like that) creating the universe through his imagination. And we all thought Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be just a little bit odd. What need the consolations of Christ when the advent of the world came through the exercise of the individual imagination, consort of the Oversoul?

On an aesthetic scale, Emerson and the romantics were merely gauche, optimistic naifs willing to blather on about the state of their own souls when what was really needed was the hard and broken nose of modernism, which viewed the soul of the poet with only a little less scepticism than the machinations of the modern world. Both strains of anti-Romnticism came together in the aesthetic pieties and the pious aesthetics of T.S. Eliot. Odd mix for me, but I’d still rather read Eliot’s Waste Land than Emerson’s Poetry. But, too, I’d rather read any one of Emerson’s essays than any essay that Eliot ever wrote. They are a poetry of their own, and by that I mean they move me and change the way I see the world in some of the same ways that Eliot’s poetry moves and changes me.

(Unfashionable admission number two–I became a scholar of English during a semester in which I spent hours memorizing lines of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land to deliver as part of an oral interpretation class. Who says it’s not a song?)

(Unfashiongable admission number three–I admit to the perversity of liking equally and in different ways the long, engorged, and lusty lines of breathy Walt Whitman and the Puritan and technical severity of Eliot’s poetry that tends to exist only on the page. The belief that you can only like one kind of thing, that we can’t like poetries that are polar opposites is, in the words of Emerson, a contradiction that is the hobgoblin on little minds. Read much. Love much. Contain multitudes.)

Which brings me to the “umpires of taste” who are the target of the first line of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Obviously Emerson has in mind the critics of his age, but my general interest is the way that Emerson looks at and understands reading. The umpires of reading are seeking to create rules for reading and writing, to arrive at a proper reading. What is the right thing to like, what is the best thing to read, what is the best way to read, what is the proper understanding of a text. This is the kind of reading that Emerson derides when he priviledges writing over reading, when he dismisses the reading of books for the making of books. He is, of course, suspicious of reading in general, as “The American Scholar” makes plain. However, there is a kind of reading that is a kind of poetry. Indeed, it’s not to much to say that writing is a kind of reading, and that reading is a kind of writing, if we understand that both can require the agency of the imagination.

There is, of course, a kind of reading that is purely instrumental. The gaining, processing, and storing of information. Too often, this is the kind of reading that we encourage in school, and the kind of reading that we think is the primary and first point of reading. Any other kind of reading only comes later, or is suspect if it doesn’t subject itself to this. The umpires of taste sniff at the inspiration, the personal connections, the new insights that readers bring to a text, sniff and subject such readings to the rules and requirements of reading properly.

Emerson reverses this academic privileging of analysis under reposed and quieted emotion.

“An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream that holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Amen and Amen. The Discipline of English is often not ill-named a discipline, since it’s goal can often end up being to transform these wild and boggy responses to the chant of the universe to automatic responsa, with criticism as dull as memorized prayers.

Ok, I’ll be more composed and analytical tomorrow. But first I had to say that Emerson does a service by getting at why we chose to read in the first place. Before we had to read in order to write a disseration, or publish an essay, or teach a class. When we were lovers plain and simple.

I hope that isn’t the same thing as saying before we grew up.

Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.

Reading as Mapping: Or, Who are the Well-Read? And Does Anyone Really Care?

My son is a seventh grader who plays up a grade on an eighth grade basketball team. They make the Bad News Bears look talented. I was talking with a friend whose daughter plays on a high school team that’s also been struggling, and I asked him if it was as bad as our eighth graders. “Worse,” he said, “because at least there’s hope.”

How true. With absolutely low expectations and little hope of victory, we can be thrilled when the eighth grade boys manage to keep the game within 30 points. By contrast, our boys’ high school basketball team has lost a dozen games by less than five points, and the girls’ team has played well below expectations, their dismal records depressing by virtue of what might have been.

I feel a little bit the same way about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.Despite my disparagement of Bayard in yesterday’s post, it’s fair to say that Bayard has 15 pages of very provocative insights. But his tendency to extend them to absurd extremes, to make mind-bending leaps of illogic without sufficient evidence, and his willingness to bury those insights beneath pages of mind-numbingly dull and uninventive reading—to say nothing of his generally flippant tone—leads me to dislike the book all the more despite the important things it might have to say. What might have been, I want to say. What might have been.

For me, Bayard raises the question of what we must mean when we imagine being well read—a class of persons that seems increasingly rarified and relatively unimportant, but which bears a residual level of cultural respect, if not capital, in any case. In America, the Well-Read are something like the British Royal family: ceremonial but without any real power.

Bayard points out that given the tens, the hundreds, of thousands of books that we could possibly imagine being worth reading, there is some literal sense in which all of us will have always read almost nothing at all. He tells the story from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities wherein the hero walks through a library of 3 and a half million books and realized that, were he to read a book a day, he would have to live ten thousand years to read them all. I am reminded of my favorite professor in college, Joe McClatchey, whom we saw walking across campus one day, a troubled look on his face. Asked what was wrong, he said with some intense sadness that he had just realized how many great books there were that he would never have the chance to read.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s dictum for Christians that in comparison to the love and wisdom of God, Christians must begin each day realizing they are starting over as infants. None of us is ever really well-read in this quantitative sense, and so being well-read means something other than or different than “reading everything” or even “reading a lot.” It has nothing, in fact, to do with an amount of reading whatsoever.

The traditional canonical arguments would suggest that it means reading “the best” that has been thought and written, while canonical revisionists would, of course, seek to change or alter what is contained on this list of “bests,” or else challenge and change what is meant by “best.” I am unimpressed by this quest for the right list of “bests”; even were we to agree on what the category entails, it seems to me there are too many very good books out there to read, even in the relatively narrow field defined problematically as “literature”–leave alone philosophy, history, theology, social theory, and etcetera–for us to ever imagine something like a comprehensive literacy.

Bayard takes things in an intriguingly different direction. Being well read is not a matter of what you read at all. Being well read is not a matter of assimilating a particular number of titles. Indeed, for Bayard, being well read has nothing to do with reading particular books at all. Instead, being well read is a function of understanding the relationships between books, an understanding that, once mastered, allows someone to place books with only the most cursory understanding of their contents.

To some degree with is a literacy of location—thus the title of this blog, reading as mapping. To read a single book is a little like examining the details of a single city block. I could read a hundred different titles on a great books list, but if I am only wrapped up in the reading of individual texts, what I will come away with is an intimate knowledge of 100 different city blocks.

For Bayard, by contrast, being well-read is not achieved through the intimate, rigorous, and close reading of discrete texts, but through understanding the map of texts, the way texts and their properties fit together, cohere, differ, contrast. As Bayard puts it:

“As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.

“It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn’t read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject” (10-11)

Before questioning this, I want to affirm how very true it really is, and how important it might be for thinking through what we might mean by cultural literacy. I am often poignantly struck by students who come to me for a list of books they ought to read. I always tell them, read authors they like, and then read what those writers liked, and then read writers who liked those writers. I’m not quite saying the same thing as Bayard, but I am trying to suggest to students that reading a particular list of books is not going to be that helpful.

I think Bayard pushes me a little further here in making me see that I’m also trying to get students in to some kind of system of relationship between texts. Who influences whom, and why does it matter. This is one way of mapping—probably not a very good one. What professors know that students do not are not just individual texts. What professors know is how to read the maps of texts that students don’t even really comprehend exist. The championing of “native knowledges” and reading preferences of students as is common in some pedagogies is of limited use if we don’t see that we are leaving students impotent in understanding how maps of reading work in culture. How can they map their own preferences on to the map of literature—or, how can they challenge whatever maps currently exist.

In a particular sense it seems to me that what Bayard is doing is applying the insights of structural linguistics to the world of books. Imagine each book as a word. Understanding the word by itself is not important, and indeed, if a person only knew one word we justifiably and correctly call such a person an idiot (clinical definition, a person who can do only one thing or speak to only himself—kind of like writing this blog).

However, the structural linguists rightly point out that the meaning of any word is only functional within the entire system of words, and that it is important to understand the shape of that system, that discourse, in some ways more important to understand that than to understand discrete words themselves—a logical impossibility in the thinking of structural linguists since there is no word “in itself”. To apply a Wittgensteinian take on this rather than a structural linguistic take, we rightly note that the meaning of a word is in its use. We can often determine or broadly guess the meaning of a particular word we have never heard before by hearing the word in use, in a particular context. And in any case we come to understand a word not by getting definitions but by learning how the word is put in to use in the systems of language.

Bayard is saying something very similar about what it means to be culturally literate. Cultural literacy is not the grasping of lists of facts or texts—as E.D. Hirsch or Allan Bloom would have had it back in the 80s. Literacy is understanding how the system of books work so that, even when we have not read a particular book, we can determine without too much trouble its general place in the system of books as a whole.

On the whole, I think Bayard underplays the significance of reading particular texts, and the particular kind of sophistication that come through these local knowledges. Bayard’s assertions that it is more important to know the map than to have visited the locations on the map, bears a certain truth. But it’s not clear that a person who reads a map, but who has never seen a mountain or who has never walked through a city block, or who has never viewed the sea, can properly be said to understand a map at all.

Imagine a person who grows up in a closed room and is taught only to read maps, and he becomes thoroughly familiar with maps and the relationships between them. It’s not clear, however, that such a person can really read a map if, when taken out of his room, he cannot recognize a city street. Instead the person is merely reading hieroglyphics without any sense of the relationship of those hieroglyphics to the cultural life in which they are embedded. In other words, a certain level of extended close reading is necessary for the reading of book maps to make any sense at all. Reading of individual books is necessary to the possibility of reading maps in a way we simply take for granted. On the other hand, this having been said, it’s not clear we can really understand our own geography in the fullest ways possible, without understanding the ways that geography is related to other geographies.

In other words, we need to both read the maps and walk the streets. The relationship between the two elements is far more dynamic and interactive than Bayard seems to allow. The knowledge of individual books is only coherent by understanding how to map the book to a particular bookish geography. However, maps only make sense to us at all if we have some knowledge and understanding about at least some, and preferably many, individual books. We can only understand relationship through understanding things being related. Relationship itself, as Kierkegaard well understood, is the most abstract and insubstantial—yet unavoidable and necessary—of philosophical concepts. To get at the ways in which books relate, we have to grasp at least some things of book themselves.

Many more things to say here, but I think I’m going to stop for the night. Two main things on my mind. One, I think the multi-ethnic canon wars have often been fought over lists, and have thus been only marginally effective in challenging the most important thing: the way books are mapped. While we read a few new books, we mostly haven’t changed our understanding of how books relate to each other. We haven’t changed the map; we’ve just added heretofore-unacknowledged trees and rocky outcroppings, while leaving the basic contours of the geographic spaces of literature untouched. Second, and it might be related, but I’m not sure. I think we still do a better job of communicating to undergraduates the importance of the close reading of discrete texts than we do the importance of relationship between texts. Students come away with a strong sense of reading, but not a strong sense of how to map books in their experience.

Stanley Fish Pleasures Himself, Yet Again

Fish returned again today to his continued probing of the rationale for the humanities, concluding—surprise!—there is no such rationale, at least not one that anyone will bother to pay for. Fish’s arguments change, somewhat, this time around but he’s mostly sticking to familiar territory, unconvinced by the hundreds of readers who mustered the energy to respond before the Times cut off the opportunity to comment.

Fish begins with an interesting and powerful disquisition on the nature of humanistic investigations.

“In a poem titled ‘Matins,’ the 17th century Anglican poet George Herbert says to God, If you will ‘teach me thy love to know . . . Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.’ But the dynamics of the proffered bargain – if you do X, I’ll do Y – are undercut by the line that proposes it, and especially by the double pun in ‘sunbeam.’

“‘Sun’ is a standard pun on Son; it refers to Jesus Christ; ‘beam’ means not only ray of light, but a piece of wood large enough to support a structure; it refers to the cross on which a crucified Christ by dying takes upon himself and redeems (pays the price for) the sins of those who believe in him. So while ‘by a sunbeam’ seems to specify the means by which the poem’s speaker will perform a certain act – ‘I will climb to thee’ – the phrase undercut his claim to be able to do so by reminding us (not him) that Christ has already done the climbing and thereby prevented (in the sense of anticipating) any positive act man mistakenly thinks to be his own. If the speaker climbs to God, he does so by means of God, and cannot take any personal credit for what he ‘does.’ If he truly knows God’s love, he will know that as an unconditional and all-sufficing gift it has disabled him as an agent.

“This brief analysis of a line of poetry that simultaneously reports a resolution and undermines it is an example of the kind of work and teaching I have done for almost five decades. It is the work of a humanist, that is, someone employed in a college to teach literary, philosophical and historical texts. The questions raised in my previous column and in the responses to it are: what is the value of such work, why should anyone fund it, and why (for what reasons) does anyone do it?”

This is Fish the quintessential close reader, to my mind demonstrating once again that whatever the peregrinations he and we may have made through high theory, our debt as a discipline to the New Critics remains in some sense unexceedable. What we do, he rightly says, what we always return to, what we inevitably affirm whatever our allegiances to history or whatever our convictions about the possibility and impossibility of meaning, is this activity, the simple and yet difficult act of attending, of reading what the flow of language tempts us always to miss.
For Fish, again, this is its own pleasure and its own rationale. It serves no larger purpose. And, as he now comes out frankly in his final paragraphs and asserts, it’s not clear that there is any justification in being paid for it.

“One final point. Nguyen Chau Giao asks, ‘Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?’ To tell the truth, I can’t remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s “Matins”) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’ That’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

To some degree I’ve already argued with Fish’s position here in my post last Thursday. However, I want to point out today that there’s a very long distance between his opening disquisition and his late affirmation of aesthetic wonderment. In between, Fish again makes the case that the study of literature does absolutely nothing in the world. However, I think his own example may suggest otherwise.

Fish continues to imagine the bases of the discipline in the triumph of literature, he is stuck in noting the division between the production—and perhaps usefulness—of great art and the uselessness of studying it. However although this self-substantive view of literature has been at the center of English studies for the past century, it seems to me that we need not be captive to this particular image of what it is we do and why.

Fish the rhetorician surely knows that an older rationale for study of literature is that it teaches us about how language works and how it can be used. Literature is not an icon that exists apart from the world in a separate sphere; Literature subsists in language, and by studying literature seriously we come to understand better how language works in the world, no small thing to accomplish. Indeed, the skill that Fish ably demonstrates in his opening is not a natural but a learned skill, one that requires substantial practice and study.

I have suggested with some colleagues for some time now that English studies needs to return to or reemphasize it’s roots in rhetoric and philology. The study of literature is only one, but one very good way to study how language has worked in the past and what its possibilities might be for the future. As a corollary, writing studies needs to be rescued from it’s marginal status in most English departments. Unless one believes that imitation is useless, the study of how works of literature achieve their effects in the present—or how they achieved similar or different effects in the past—can be a doorway in to understanding how the written word can function effectively in the present.

I realize this only applies to English studies; the rest of the humanities will have to fend for themselves. However would my suggestions satisfy Fish even as to the study of literature. I doubt it. But that’s because he has narrowly defined his pleasures over and against utility. Perhaps Fish has studied a bit too much of the Milton the Puritan. It is, perhaps, one of the great blessings of literary study, that pleasure and utility can be achieved in the same fertile moment, rather than existing in futile opposition.