Friday, August 10, 2007

Another Brick in The Wall

Well, the shrapnel has flown among the literary scholars in Shoreline, I guess. A young acquaintance forwarded Helena Echlin's Letter from Yale, first published in Arete Magazine a few years back. Boy, and they say the blogosphere is mean. Doesn't hold a candle to what editors will approve for publication. At least those of us who blog have a range of enemies who read us secretly and write nasty, anonymous comments that hold us accountable for our sarcasm; and friends who call to say gently, "Are you sure you want....?"

Not that I hold such a brief for the old alma mater, you understand (full disclosure: I took a B.A. in English there back in the New Criticism days and loved every second of it. Then went into a doctoral program in history.) One of the individuals named as a culprit for ruining Echlin's desire to get a Ph.D. in English literature is an old classmate from those happy undergraduate days at -- oh, all right, for those of you who have not guessed already -- Oligarch (Yale) University. And really, I can't believe he isn't the decent, sweet fellow he always was, and a marvelous teacher. Fortunately for all, Echlin has already left Oligarch's program, but her complaints range from the familiar (too much tongue-twisting, inpenetrable theory, not so many jobs) to some zingers that I haven't heard before: that literature professors no longer view fiction as a laudable pursuit in and of itself; that they live in the suburbs ("The bastards!" you exclaim); that you can barely hear yourself think in a room full of graduate students because of the smacking sounds of lips landing on tenured behinds; that Echlin's professors did not read for pleasure and that the profession cares so little for the written word that an Eng Lit graduate student at Oligarch can receive credit for a course in quantum physics but not in creative writing.

Well Helena, I have two words for you: American Studies. OK? Take the "English" out of "English literature" and you have a group of people that are hot-smart, but spend most of their spare time going to the movies, watching TV, and reading mysteries. They also love to party: visit the ASA meeting in Philadelphia this October if you don't believe me.

Seriously, are things that bad in English Departments that it is just theory, theory, theory 24/7? Really? See I wouldn't know. In the first place, I am a historian, and in the second place, I idolize English departments. Historians as a professional group value theory almost not at all, to the exent that when they worry that they are missing something, they complain that history doesn't have "a theory" (this is when scholars in other fields fall over laughing because the idea that there is one theory that could explain everything is incomprehensible to anyone but historians.) People write whole books about why theory is valued so little in the modern historical profession. And then people like Joan Scott, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Hayden White, brilliant and field-changing as they have been in their very different ways, have gone through prolonged periods of getting dished by other historians because what they do is so theoretical, according to their critics, it is "not history." This little drama is often played out on the departmental level as well, as many of my readers who are historians have, I am sure, observed. Unless you claim to do philosophy of history, in which case people leave roses at your door whether they understand what you have written or not. Go figure.

And of course we all know that familiar complaint by the ideologically or disciplinarily driven: "I don't understand it, therefore it is useless drivel!" as if these two thoughts necessarily follow one another. Nobody understands everything. And really, it isn't necessary to understand everything, even if it is written in English. I read French pretty well, and if I tried to read Derrida in the original my head would explode trying to decode it. As it is, when reading French theory in translation I wear an ice bag just in case.

Your Radical is not one of those who dish, you see: she is one who Has Been Dished, although without, unfortunately, becoming famous. I went through a period of reading every bit of feminist and queer theory I could get my mitts on, and now I can't because too many people are writing it. Oh yeah, I also went through my Marxist theory and neo-Marxist theory stage (people have more or less stopped writing that), not to mention my sociology period and my cultural studies phase-- both pretty theory-driven if not entirely theoretical, which is a blessing of sorts. While I am not famous or cited constantly like the luminaries noted above, I think it is fair to say that I profited from reading theory immensely, and still do when I am moved to make the effort. Because history does not seem to be receptive to producing overarching theories - except, of course, Marxism, the original Modern Theory of History -- so, like those silly birds who put eggs in the nests of other birds, we have to travel around grafting our work onto theoretical traditions produced elsewhere, especially in English departments. Where would history be were it not for theories thought up by all those birds in other disciplines? And why should the rest of us care how they lay their eggs, as long as they continue to do so?

So this leads me to my point: Literary criticism, in my view, can be a field for the masses, but you might just have to go somewhere other than Oligarch to be that scholar and get that education. Going to a school because it is famous, and not because you know that what they teach there is going to suit your intellectual desires, is a huge mistake and it is yours, Helena, and no one else's. And actually, English departments like Oligarch's do a great service, which Echlen has failed to note. While the rest of us are reading the latest Alice Munroe and catching up on our TV shows so the DVR won't erase them automatically, at Oligarch and Duke and Santa Cruz they are thinking up all those hard theories that we can just borrow and footnote! How great is that? So people should stop kicking English Departments around for -- not to mention that what they do for a living is a lot like being those people who built armour in seventeenth century Europe without knowing whether anyone would be using it twenty or thirty years hence. One does hope for a better outcome, of course, even though all culture and the history of the entire world will be available for iPod download in early 2010.

So Helena, lighten up, girl. Leave those kids alone.

Hat tip to Anonymous Untenured Colleague.


Anonymous said...

Ahem. I started in the Yale English program just after Echlin left, but everyone I knew knew her and loathed her (even prior, that is, to the essay's coming out). The essay was pinned up to the bulletin board in the department lounge and routinely annotated and read aloud for public amusement.

It's not that some of the specific comments were untrue, esp. WRT a couple of professors (and yes, we lovvvved reading those parts to each other), but the portrait of the department as a whole is bafflingly unrecognizable--and I say that as someone who had and still does have plenty of complaints about the way the program is run. The theory comment is particularly odd--it's hard for me to imagine that there's a top-10 English department LESS interested in theory than Yale's (you can get that in Comp Lit, but the English department is still very old-fashioned, very historicist, very New Critical); THAT's a problem right there, but it's the opposite of the one Echlin imagines.

Not having known her personally, I can only assume that she's someone who, like the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton, felt socially/intellectually alienated for one reason or another, and in trying perhaps in perfectly good faith to understand the reasons for this, completely misdiagnosed the causes. (I mean, as far as I recall, there was nonstop chatter about contemporary fiction and pop culture around the department, and this included the profs, more than one of whom were known worshippers of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

(You know very well who this is, TR, but I'm a-going anonymous this time.)

The Combat Philosopher said...

Do not worry too much about lack of 'theory'. Many of those subjects that are riddled with so-called 'theory' have a nasty habit of being philosophically incoherent. We philosophers are the experts at theory. However, we have to have a rather serious training in logic before anyone will let us loose on the world. Not so in these other areas.

To cite one of my favorite examples, on the second page of his gloriously incoherent rant "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", the much worshiped, but totally philosophically virtueless Derrida states "The Center is not the Center." He seems to do this with what appears to be a straight face. What he states amounts to a contradiction.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has passed a logic class will tell you, contradictions are explosive. That is to say, anything can be validly inferred from them. Deep problems such as this are the reason why Derrida gets short schrift from philosophers. It is unfortunate that some folks are impressed by such incoherence.

So, it is better to be without a theory than to have so-called 'theory' that is based upon pretentious but flawed silliness.

The Combat Philosopher

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes: and I'd forgotten about this rather long response, which is nevertheless quite good (it's the second letter).

Anonymous said...

(Anonymous) I think your focus on her and THB's popularity as an indicator of how we should weight their concerns and experiences really just validates some of her criticisms.

Please note: this comment was posted anonymously at 9:00 AM, and outed the author of the first comment with his/her blog name. It was probably unintentional, but it struck me as wrong to leave it up in its original form, so I re-posted it with the identity of the original commentator deleted. TR

Rufus said...

I think what I've seen at my own completely non-prestigious history department is a sort of generation gap in regards to theory. We don't have anyone using overarching theories of history, such as the Marxist, to construct their research, but many of our professors use various theories as tools to get from point a to point b. In contrast, many of our graduate students are quite averse to making any contact whatsoever with 'theory' if at all possible. In fact, one of our professors recently asked at a prospectus defense: Why is everyone so afraid of theory these days? I'm not. I figure, why not use a socket wrench when you need a socket wrench? But a number of our PhD students would probably hit it off with Echlin.

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