[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Lit. Crit. as Therapy

Paul A. Trout
Montana State University

The proficiency of our finest scholars, their heedless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship: how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself! --Nietzsche

One of the most astonishing things about the controversies now wracking universities is that the attack on traditional social and educational values and practices is lead by people who study "literature."

Sociology, political science, or economics would seem to be more logical sites for activist, radical political views. One would think that the study of poetry, plays and novels "is hardly the ideal basis for understanding modern structures of power or the mechanisms of revolutionary change" (John Searle, "The Storm Over the University," New York Review of Books, 6 Dec. 1990). Why did literature departments--English, French, comparative literature--become the home of "adversarial pedagogy," "radical theory," "oppression studies," and what might be called "politically correct criticism"?

How did such revisionist theories as Deconstruction, Marxism, feminist criticism, minority studies, gay/lesbian studies, cultural criticism, the new historicism--all socially and politically radical to varying degrees--become so quickly entrenched in literature departments? What's their peculiar appeal?

Some answers are obvious. These theories allow scholars to feel that their teaching and research combat social ills. They also provide useful insights into how literature functions in society. And, they permit scholars to go over already well-mined texts in new ways, ways that have a seductive charisma and sexiness.

I'd like to suggest that these "charismatic" and "sexy" theories wind up having powerful psychological payoffs for those practicing them. Recently Alvin Kernan observed that the fervor of those espousing such theories struck him as "almost psychological." No wonder. Many scholars are psychologically hooked on these theories for more reasons than their "validity" or their "political" correctness. These revisionist theories minister to--stroke--the psyches of literary academics in a number of ways, and I believe that these psychological payoffs help explain why so many scholars--both young and old--embraced these new theories during the 1980s, despite the fact that these theories often indicted the works they had been teaching, the way they had been teaching them, and the society that paid them. An appropriate motto for an MLA t-shirt would be "Do'n Revisionist Criticism--Feel'n Better."

To understand "Lit. Crit. as Therapy" we have to understand the state of literary studies in the '70s, just before everything started to change.

Literary studies weren't just in the doldrums, they were sunk under them. Two decades of " publish or perish" had led to a flood of publications that seemed even to those within the discipline as trivial socially irrelevant. In New Readings vs. Old Plays (1979) Richard Levin exposed the fatuities of conventional academic criticism in an analysis, as one reviewer put it, "that makes one begin to understand the decline of the university." The illogicalities and absurdities that Levin found were not limited to the study of Renaissance drama--they pervaded the profession. Having to publish more and more, critics had no interest in actually agreeing on anything or searching for the "truth." Their careers depended on constant, endless, and total disagreements.

This situation often drove scholars to make arcane, willful, extreme, and absurd arguments. Othello, one claimed, is not about Othello and Desdemona but about Emilia and Iago--"the play's central relationship." Another tried to elicit sympathy for two of literature's most despicable villains by writing "In Defense of Goneril and Regan," an article that a reviewer characterized as "the worst example of academic wrong-headedness on record." Thousands of examples like these wound up discrediting criticism even to those who practiced it. By 1979 commenting on the appalling vacuity of literary criticism was itself a topos of literary criticism. Evidently without fearing contradiction, Gerald Graff could talk about the "irrelevance, the human pointlessness, of so much literary criticism," pointing out rather perceptively that it would lead to "a guilty conscience" that would need to be "salved" (Literature Against Itself).

The situation in the classroom was almost as bad. The profession had no consensus as to why it taught what it taught, the worth of what it taught, or why it should teach anything at all. Undergraduate courses were often used to advance or display esoteric research, boring large numbers of students into a lifelong detestation of and contempt for "literature."

In 1970 a drop-out from teaching wrote about the growing "disaffection with English courses" (University of British Columbia Alumni Chronicle, Summer 1970, 11). The way literature was being taught, he suggested, was doing it more harm than good. It was making "most of those exposed to the discipline come to hate literature with a depth of passion that is sometimes marvelous to behold. And this hatred is based on good reason." "Once having finished a set of required English courses," he predicted, "many students will never read anything again."

The excesses and social irrelevance of specialized scholarship, and the lack of purpose in the humanities, moved Steven Marcus, in 1975, to write about the "demoralized humanists" and to say that higher education and the wider culture were now going through a period of "decomposition" ("The Demoralized Humanists," Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 Oct. 1975). A year later a review article in the New York Review of Books was titled "Is There Hope for English?" (27 May 1976). Three years later a review article was published in Harper's with the trenchant title "Degenerate Criticism: The Dismal State of English Studies." The same year Graff came out with Literature Against Itself.

The advent of Deconstruction in the late '70s did not remedy this situation but worsened it. Although in some ways Deconstruction was a reaction to the bankruptcy of conventional academic criticism, it was also the reductio ad absurdum of it. By calling into question such terms as "reality," "meaning," "objectivity," "reason," and "truth," by embracing "misreading" as creative opportunity and not a regrettable consequence of the abandonment of common sense, Deconstruction undermined any vestigial claims that literary studies should be taken seriously. As Gerald Graff complained in Literature Against Itself (1979), "as if our society had not rendered literature unimportant enough already, literary intellectuals have collaborated in ensuring its ineffectuality."

Things looked so bad that Peter Shaw was moved to suggest literary studies could "decline to the current marginal status of the classics."

If is difficult to pinpoint exactly when an institution has reached the end of its vigorous life, it is relatively easy to detect the signs of its preparation for inconsequence. These are always internal. It is not the attacks from without that prove crucial...but the ways that the guardians of the tradition themselves behave. In academe, they prove to have abandoned the citadel years before it came under attack. As a result, the professors' uncoerced embrace of absurdity and inconsequence amounts to the surrender of their role in the transmission of culture before a shot was fired.

Put this all to together and what have you got at the end of the '70s? A harrowingly bleak state of affairs, to say the least. A number of those in the discipline were terribly demoralized, depressed, even desperate, wracked by grave misgivings about the value of their professional lives. Their teaching and research were contemptuously dismissed as pathetically self-indulgent and irrelevant to wider social and human concerns. Their faith in the old pieties about the value of literary studies had worn thin or been "deconstructed." No wonder many were convinced that they were being treated like "second-class citizens" and deserved to be (Steven Marcus, CHE, 28 Oct. 1975). No wonder therapists sprung up to treat "professional melancholia" resulting from the misgivings, regrets, anxieties, guilts, and even, perhaps, self-contempt festering in academics.

Teachers of literature were psychologically primed to embrace any new piety that would dignify and justify the teaching and study of "literature," that would heal old wounds, alleviate lingering anxieties, give them a sense of social relevance, valorize their endeavors, and generally make them "feel good" about what they do. And this explains in part, I believe, the extraordinary success of revisionist theories from the beginning of the 1980s to today. Many of them had been around for a decade or two, but by 1980 they were desperately needed by a demoralized profession to redress withering feelings of powerlessness, irrelevance, and inconsequence. These theories provided just the right therapy, as I'll now explain.

There are, of course, sound scholarly reasons for studying the social production and ideological functions of literature, and for using a Marxist perspective to do it, but one can't help suspect that some of the tweed-jacketed MLA members practicing "radical literary theory" just might be attracted to this approach for other reasons than profound political conviction. Alvin Kernan suggests that the radicalism of today's literary scholars can be explained, in part, by the "proletarianization" of the profession during the 1970s and early '80s. The '70s were tough times, with literature departments being particularly hard-hit by salary freezes, cutbacks, increased teaching loads, meager institutional support, etc. "Today, still embittered, but now taking over, they express in their research and teaching their grievances and anger" (Philip Gold, "A Smoking Gun in Literary Demise," Insight, 12 November 1990).

Politically engaged criticism serves an even more crucial function--it valorizes and dignifies literary studies, and those who engage in them. Scholars no longer need to feel socially irrelevant, decorative, and impotent. Thanks to revisionist theories, they now can feel socially crucial and enormously macho and macha. Far from being frivolous and self-indulgent, Lit. Crit. is a political act with powerful implications. A scholarly publication is now valorized as a political "intervention."

The convenient and seductive thing about radical political criticism is that it can be applied to any work or author without the scholar having to retool. A Shakespearean scholar, for instance, merely has to find in The Tempest evidence of eurocentrism or colonialism to enjoy the feeling that this "intervention" somehow advances the liberation of blacks in South Africa. With the right title, a publication that once might have been dismissed as arcane and self-indulgent now becomes charged with momentous political significance. Studying the homosexual fantasies of Jean Genet, for example, is a political intervention if called "The Homoerotics of Revolution." Even food is not without political importance: The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1989). What's next? Animal-Rights Criticism, I suspect.

Thanks to politically charged criticism, revisionist teachers no longer bore students with arcane bibliographical data or lifeless historical anecdotes, but dazzle them with their ability to expose the masterpieces of Western literature as tools of the power structure used to keep the oppressed--including students--in place. It must be deeply gratifying to save students from the oppression of imperialized discourse. One now stands before students like some sort of literary Ralph Nader, warning them that those classics they've been conditioned to venerate are really unsafe at any reading speed.

This debunking of the Western literary tradition may have other psychological payoffs as well. I suspect it's partly an act of revenge on authors and works which had become closely identified with the most miserable period of one's life--graduate school. "I may have had to pass comprehensives on these abstruse jokers to get the Ph.D., but now that I've got it, I can say exactly how I feel: they're nothing but a bunch of Boring Dead White Guys."

And this readiness to wipe away millennia of intriguing literary works may also be a psychic spasm against what Walter Jackson Bate has called the "burden of the past." Bate argues that an awareness of the creative accomplishments of the past can generate in people a debilitating sense of their own insignificance and comparative mediocrity. It is a little humiliating to spend one's life elucidating the brilliance of others. This may explain why one professor feels "oppressed" every time she hears the word "classic." To relieve this oppression, revisionist theories have contemptuously dismissed "classic" authors as "DWEMs" (Dead White European Males), or they killed off the very concept of the "author." Both seem ways of gaining Lebensraum for one's self-esteem.

Another successful way of assuaging anxieties about being less imaginative than "classic" "authors" is to "God-up" the reader and critic. Harold Bloom in The Breaking of the Vessels argues that criticism is just as creative as, let's say, writing the Divine Comedy, a self-promoting notion widely popular with those who like to think of themselves as "imperial readers." The valorizing of the Critic by the Critic can be seen in this new "intervention": The Critical Romance: The Critic as Reader, Writer, Hero (1990).

A comment overheard at a meeting of the Modern Language Association captures perfectly the sense of charismatic significance that now can be enjoyed by revisionist critics. An academic ordering a drink at the Marxist Cash Bar whispered to his companion, "the bartender is probably CIA." Right! As if a couple of tippling assistant professors were important enough to merit political surveillance! There's no denying, however, that this exaggerated self-regard must feel a whole lot better than being nagged by suspicion that despite three advanced degrees, you're still a social nonentity.

Revisionist criticism also is useful for shoring up a sagging sense of manhood. No need to be concerned that you're a wimpy "handmaiden" of literature if you drink heavily from the current streams of Lit. Crit. Here you'll imbibe such an intoxicating dose of swaggering tough talk and sexual exhibitionism that you'll start decking yourself out in gold chains and leather, just like Stanley Fish now does (Dinesh D'Souza, "Illiberal Education," Atlantic Monthly, March 199l, 72).

Now the Literary Critic has clout, just like the real heavy hitters of the culture--macho dudes like Jose Canseco and Cecil Fielder. Frank Lentricchia of Duke says, "I don't think any other English Department...can boast of the lineup of home-run hitters that we've now got here." Fish boasts that his "superstars" are "free agents," comparing their recruitment to "what's happening in the NBA" (in D'Souza).

When you're a member of the "hermeneutical mafia," you don't have to ever worry that you're a weenie. Lentricchia's macho status is testified to by his label as the "Dirty Harry of contemporary critical theory." Stanley Fish's clout is amply proclaimed by his being praised as "the most feared English teacher in the world." Only wimps aspire to being "the best read" or "most thoughtful."

Their exaggerated view of their political importance sometimes betrays revisionary critics into self-dramatizing overstatements. When a chapter of the National Association of Scholars opened at U. of Texas, an English professor warned her students that "academic death squads [were] operating on our campuses" (CHE, 21 Nov. 1990). Two macha feminist scholars like to think that their critical interventions are a form of terrorism: "We are dropping a bomb into the stable world of literary masterpieces." J. Hillis Miller's modest Luddite project is "demolishing beyond hope of repair the machine of Western metaphysics" (D'Souza 76). If criticism is "intervention," poetry is a pistol--according to an article entitled "My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity." This conjures up an image of little Emily debating with Goebbels about which of them is quicker on the draw when the word "culture" is mentioned. Or for Emily, would it be "classic"?

One final example of how revisionist criticism helps critics feel good about themselves. Stanley Fish himself acknowledges that these critical approaches have a powerful psychological payoff--they are "psychologically liberating." When one realizes, he explains, that all standards are relative, one "can see through and discard all the norms to which we have been falsely enslaved" (D'Souza 72--it's always "falsely" by the way). A number of academics seem to have found these theories "sexually" liberating, allowing them to display their freedom from childhood sexual guilts and anxieties, especially about masturbation. At the 1989 MLA there was a special session entitled "The Muse of Masturbation." Some of the papers were entitled "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," and "Clitoral Imagery and Masturbation in Emily Dickinson" (poor "private" Emily).

For those not yet fully liberated, Lit. Crit. may provide some sort of psychosexual therapy. Sessions at the 1990 MLA offered papers on "Lord Peter Wimsey: A Member of the Neighboring Sex," "The Detective as Pervert," "Gross Feeders and Flowing Cups: Is Naked Ministering Pornographic in Book 5 of Paradise Lost?" (poor "public" Milton), "Assume the Position: Pluralist Ideology and Gynocriticism," "The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?" and "Desublimating the Male Sublime: Autoerotics, Anal Erotics, and Corporeal Violence in Melville and William Burroughs." A new book entitled Ganymede And The Erotics Of Humanism finds in the story of Ganymede not only "a chartering myth of pederasty and homoeroticism" but "the loftiest desires of the soul to attain divinity."

Some scholars are quite open about the purpose of what might be called Clitoral-criticism and Anal-analytics. Gays and lesbians--"marginalized" "others"--are intent upon demarginalizing themselves and thrusting their sexual orientations to the Center of culture. Heterosexuality, they argue, is merely a socially contrived category to which we've been "falsely enslaved." Their program is to depict homosexuality and lesbianism as normal. One of the sponsors of a 1990 conference titled "Queer Theory" explained that the goal of the conference was to portray "homosexuality not as a perversion or an inversion of normal sexual identity but as a sexual behavior and an identity on its own terms--as a cultural form in its own right" (CHE, 27 Oct. 1990).

When gay/lesbian critics are themselves criticized for using the classroom to legitimize their sexual orientations, or to recruit, they respond that all they're doing is counterbalancing the implied endorsement of heterosexuality that results from males and females in the classroom. The goal of gay/lesbian critics is to have students "see heterosexuality as a choice" (Teresa de Lauretis, in CHE, 27 Oct. 1990). Some go further. Eve Sedgwick dedicates her courses to exposing the "heterosexual bias inherent in Western literature." She is the author of the not-quite-best-seller How to Bring Your Kids up Gay.

Given the deplorable condition of literary studies in the 1970s, it is not difficult to understand why revisionist theories were so seductive to both young and older scholars alike. They ministered to deep and unnerving anxieties about our social value and professional worth. These theories have certainly helped an enormous number of academics deal successfully with their wounded self-esteem. That's why, even amidst apocalyptic pronouncements of The Death of Literature (Alvin Kernan, 1990), revisionist critics can say with conviction that "the humanities have never been stronger than they are now" (George Levine et al., Speaking for the Humanities, 1989). What this means is that at lease some revisionist critics have never felt so good, never before got so much attention, and never made so much money (some at Duke are making over $100,000, the guaranteed minimum for a rookie in the Big Leagues).

But a number of scholars are still afflicted by grave professional doubts and anxieties. Even in 1990 a literary scholar can bewail the theoretical confusion that besets the discipline. "Ambitious without direction or specific goals, uncertain of its position in the larger culture, unsure of its basic terms--including "theory," "criticism," and even "literature"--the profession of literary criticism finds itself in a kind of trough" (TLS, 17-23 Aug. 1990, in CHE, 12 Sept. 1990). Another, John Martin, complains bitterly about the "underlying message" society is sending to literary academics--"that our enterprise really has little, if any, value" (CHE, 15 Nov. 1989). He calls them the "orphans of the university system," and declares that "our collective morale and our willingness to encourage our best students to pursue academic careers cannot hold up much longer. Our frustration is real and must be addressed soon."

And despite all the palaver in and out of the classroom about "revolution," "hegemony," "phallocentrism," "oppression," "imperialism," "colonialism," "ideology," "subversion," and "praxis," students still find lit. crit., as one of them put it, "just B.S." Professor Robert Johnson of Regis College says, "students I meet seem pretty confident that criticism, just like snake oil, has value only for the duped, the misguided, or the jargon-spewing, mind-fogged initiate" (CHE, 9 Jan. 1991). But even the "initiates" are ridiculing it, and by "it" I mean revisionary criticism. As one graduate student responsible for the parody Misrepresentations (U of California-Berkeley) explains, "It's because we're graduate students--we feel infantilized by the system already. In order to retain our self-esteem we need to humiliate everybody else" (CHE, 19 Dec. 1990). So, even parodies of revisionist criticism serve psychological needs.

Apparently, even more drastic changes will have to occur before most of us in the profession, and those outside it, are thoroughly convinced that the study of literature has real social relevance and human value.

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home