Academic Capitalism & Literary Value

Harold Fromm
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991
255 pp., $21.95 hc

Paul Trout
Montana State University

There's no doubt that the critical methodologies that supplanted the New Criticism of the '50s and '60s have produced a lively and flourishing period for literary studies and have permanently changed the way literature is read, analyzed, and taught in the "highest academies of the empire."

But now that these theories have become "hegemonic" in most "cutting-edge" English departments, they've provoked a vigorous critical response.

Some of the more incisive ripostes are: Goodheart's The Skeptic Disposition (1984), Cain's The Crisis in Criticism (1984), Felperin's Beyond Deconstruction (1985), Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987), Ellis's Against Deconstruction (1989), Altieri's Canons and Consequences (1990), Schwarz's The Case for a Humanistic Poetics (1991), Kernan's The Death of Literature, Lehman's Signs of the Times (1991), and Crews's The Critics Bear it Away (1992).

Some other titles that hack and hew at contemporary critical discourse have become best-sellers, such as Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990), Sykes's ProfScam (1988) and The Hollow Men (1990), and D'Souza's Illiberal Education (1991).

Academic Capitalism & Literary Value is far too stylistically dense and intellectually demanding to be a bestseller, but it is a favorite with the new underground of Marginalized Others who resist some of tenets and implications of the new hegemony.

The fourteen essays (published in the country's most prestigious journals and reviews) that make up the book cover a wide range of topics, from contemporary criticism's irrational "sanctification of data" in a cosmos without God to recent politicized (mis)readings of such "sitting ducks" as Leonard Woolf and the Brontës. Each essay, however, somehow contributes to Fromm's argument that the professional study of literature is riddled with ethical and logical contradictions that undermine its very existence.

A sign that this counter-thrust has drawn blood is the fact that Academic Capitalism & Literary Value has gone unreviewed in almost all hegemonic and "cutting edge" critical-theory journals.

Although mostly couched in intricate and subtle phrasing and diction, Fromm's message is bitterly sarcastic and pugnacious. Academic literary critics, he charges, aren't publishing articles and books to pursue truth or objective knowledge--these notions have been exploded by deconstruction and other postmodern theories--but to climb the corporate ladder to greater material success, privilege, and power. As he puts it, the study of literature has become "just one form of industry among others, with self-interest, success, and profit as the final goals." What really troubles Fromm is that most academic critics don't care what they have to do to literature or its audience to climb this ladder.

To mask the crassness of what they're really doing, critics insist on the social and political relevance of their theories, but most people outside the academy don't give a hoot about subversive sub-texts, and when they do pay enough attention to what's going on in classrooms and critical texts, they are often befuddled or appalled. The consequence of all this, according to Fromm, is the further marginalization of the study of literature and the evisceration of those basic emotions required to create and enjoy literary works.

For Fromm, the most bogus "academic capitalists" are those who still insist that they're radicals or Marxists. Their agenda is no different from that of others in academia--"power and success" within the system. To achieve these goals they appropriate material resources (literary works) just like any capitalist would. They commodify their scholarship and careers and sell them in the academic marketplace. And they employ capitalist technology to produce tiresomely repetitive attacks on capitalism and technology. They are, according to Fromm, "paradigmatic acquisitive capitalists" who have become "archvirtuosi at extracting every possible benefit from the smooth and dependable operation of systems they denounce as wicked, undependable, obsolete, or purely phantasmal." Just like the Tropicana fruit juice company--that much-derided symbol of colonial capitalism-- "radical" critics appropriate texts to squeeze from them as much profit as possible. As Irving Howe pithily remarked, "Marxism has gone to the universities to die in comfort."

Although, according to Fromm, it's "far worse"--morally--to criticize capitalism while "wallowing" in its benefits than simply to accept its "manifold" horrors, he wonders if it is fair to expect any more ethical sensitivity from professional literary critics than from, let's say, physicists who work on new weapons of "mass destruction" or chemists who concoct carcinogenic herbicides. Fromm understands that professionals, by definition, are professionally incapacitated from seeing the deformations of value and perspective that professionalism both entails and tries to mask. This is why Swift's self-absorbed Laputan scholars shrewdly employed flappers to periodically slap them back into reality.

In an effort to flap literary critics out of their narcissistic and sanctimonious disregard for the needs and feelings of others, Fromm contends that the Lit. Crit. Industry has become as "destructive, crass," and morally blind as the automobile industry that once produced cars that exploded on impact. The academic scholarly enterprise has become in its own way as "philistine" as any other money-grubbing enterprise in society, and "it flourishes on a basis of moral superiority often as flimsy as that of politics or conventional religiosity." "Its attacks on everything bourgeois are hollow to the core."

Fromm is also troubled by what the professionalization of literary criticism has done to the concept of literature itself. Just a few decades ago, most critics justified the study and teaching of literary works on the grounds that they had meaning, emotional and aesthetic value, and long-term cultural and social benefits. In most literature departments, these notions are now contemptible.

The old word "masterpiece"--an aesthetically ordered, referential, and autonomously meaningful work--have been reductively flattened to "text"--an indeterminate construction stitched together from various available cultural strands. Literary works are now on the same logical level as any other concocted document or any other cultural artifact or phenomenon that can be interpreted (telephone books, class rolls, etc.).

Although justified by "reference" to deconstructionist theories of language, this strategy, Fromm points out, also conveniently serves careerist ends. Converting the world into a "text" dramatically expands the range of available subjects upwardly mobile academics can write about, providing them with new pastures not yet eaten out by hungry scholars and with all kinds of congenial and untaxing grazing material.

As a result, Milton Studies are "in bad shape" (Cain, The Crisis in Criticism, 176), but Madonna Studies are a thriving cottage industry. As Daniel Harris notes in a withering essay in The Nation, there is now a Lacanian Madonna, a Foucauldian Madonna, a Baudrillardian Madonna, a Marxist Madonna, a Freudian Madonna, and no doubt soon--since theory is effortlessly imposed on any material--a Bakhtinian Madonna (The Nation, 8 June 1992). No doubt it would be enormously enlightening to learn how each approach deals with the Sontagian complexity of Madonna's deceptively subtle but typical monosyllabic existential question in which she reveals her debt to Genet, "How do you give a good blow job?" (Sex [H.B. Fenn, 1992]).

Harris argues that the academic Madonna Phenomenon is motivated not by genuine interest in popular culture but by academics' need to prove their social relevance. "Madonna scholars see themselves as iconoclasts rebelling against the suffocating strictures of High Art, as devilish pranksters shocking prudish humanists." Far from being subversive, Harris argues, Madonna Studies in fact represents the ultimate act of cultural imperialism, "a lift into the saddle for the inevitable ride on academics' all-too-predictable hobbyhorses."

The appropriation of popular culture for careerist ends, Fromm believes, raises awkward questions about the relation, if any, between scholarly expertise and aesthetic judgment. As Fromm observes, the need to have a steady stream of material to convert into articles "has resulted in a good deal of ephemera, both avant-garde and popular, being given life-support systems that did not exist in the past." But who benefits from all this "besides the professors who receive foundation grants and tenure for their efforts?" To whom is The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theories (1992) really addressed? My cousin Vinny? Not likely.

Flattening literary works to "texts" also enables critics to drop the now shopworn, drab, and demanding "aesthetic approach" and pick up approaches that will make the study of literature seem more socially charismatic. This is why political and social approaches are now so pervasive. They collapse everything into ideology and fatuously claim that the idea of "quality" is either meaningless or oppressive. This notion makes texts easy to teach, and permits academics to gain coup by being socially radical.

This strategy also enables critics, as Fromm explains, to valorize what they do above what writers do. The power to declare which texts are oppressively "hegemonic" and which liberationally "subversive" puts the critic in charge of the text, not the text in charge of the critic. With the power to expose Milton as a puritanical misogynist, or reveal Charlotte Brontë as another victim of patriarchy and class struggle, the critic can persuade others that he or she is operating at a higher level of consciousness than the work's numbskull creator.

By "mastering" and "overpowering" the text, the critic also, of course, "masters" and "overpowers" the reader, too. As literature classes seem designed to prove, non-professional and thus unskilled readers need critics to "deconstruct" and unmask nefarious literary texts. This strategy at once justifies the economic rewards that critics enjoy and gives critics something they've "always wanted"--"monopolistic" control over the production and re-production of "texts." This control allows critics to amass academic capital writing about anything they want without "reference" to the needs of the larger society.

Like Kernan and others, Fromm is gravely concerned about where all this leads. Is it really wise to deconstruct the very vehicle that you want to ride all the way to the bank? If literature doesn't have a determinate or even a determinable meaning, as structuralist, poststructuralist, reader-response, and deconstructive critical theories maintain, then not only is literature "subverted" but so is "literary criticism as a self-consistent discipline." After all, if there is really no reason to read a literary work, there is certainly no reason to read a critical article on it, since this assemblage of critical "words" cannot possibly narrow the gap between reader and always-indeterminate text. Yet, if texts do not have determinate or determinable existences, why do professional academics behave as if they were "sacred" objects, apparently worthy of unlimited ideological analysis and elucidation?

Once literature is devalued to the role of political instrument, and writers are reduced to cunningly unscrupulous agents with the same grubby vanities as the rest of us, the cultural reason for creating, appreciating, or professing literature disappears. If literary works have no aesthetic value, if they have no emotional power, if they are laden with false consciousness and evil messages, then what justifies the continued academic study of them? Nothing--except, of course, professionalism's drive to stay in business.

So, tireless academic capitalists continue to add to the mountain of critical studies written for professionals who know the jargonistic codes. As far as Fromm is concerned, either literary works do have aesthetic and cultural value--are worth the precious and unrecoverable heartbeats that critics expend studying and writing about them--or academic capitalists suffer from a commodity fetishism that borders on "insanity."

Academic Capitalism & Literary Value is often clever and incisive, and it certainly provides a heart-felt if indirect brief for the aesthetic and human value of literary "texts." But its message that academic critics publish to advance their careers won't surprise anyone in the business, where the reigning question is, "What have you published lately?"

And it would also be naive to think that Fromm's indictment of professionalized literary study is going to flap any academics from narcissistic self-absorption. The entrepreneurial values Fromm swipes at are too entrenched in the academic psyche to be dislodged by even a gang of flappers. Academic capitalists will continue to do what brings them profit, until it doesn't.

But Fromm's point that academic criticism has baffled and alienated non-professionals and has discredited the academic study of literature should not be ignored. Recent critiques of higher education (Profscam, Tenured Radicals, Illiberal Education, Impostors in the Temple, etc.) almost always contain a trenchant attack on literary studies for its refusal to nurture the public mind--for its repudiation of noblesse oblige. Along with those newspaper articles that ridicule the pompous and trivial navel-gazing that occurs at annual MLA meetings, these attacks are now encouraging outsiders, and some insiders too, to demand changes in higher education. Recent complaints that professors should "teach more and publish less" are a result, I suspect, of a deep hostility to what has been going on, or thought to have been going on, in English departments over the last twenty years.

Though few academic capitalists are taking any of this seriously, there's mounting evidence that these attacks on the way literature is taught and written about in the academy may provoke a grass-roots backlash that could make it difficult for literary academic capitalists to keep doing business as usual. For example, some state legislatures are now mandating minimum teaching loads high enough to adversely affect the current level of scholarly "production" in the humanities. When a state legislature takes to flapping, the whacks could knock industrious academics senseless.

Perhaps there is still some hope for self-correction. If academic critics are, as Fromm says, "paradigmatic acquisitive capitalists," maybe they'll prove just as resourceful as those American car manufacturers who, when faced with a hostile and declining market, went back to the drawing board, retooled, and returned with a product consumers found more useful and beautiful.

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