Sunday, August 28, 2011

American Literature Defiled

It’s a good thing to take pride in your achievements. Even those who believe that enhanced self-esteem will solve all of the world’s problems agree… up to a point.

They believe in achievement-based self-esteem, but they do not accept that there are objective standards for judging achievement.

To their minds, achievement means that someone tells you that you have done a great job… regardless of whether you have.

In that they fail to distinguish between pride based on objective accomplishment and false pride based on flattery.

Self-esteemism also suffers an even greater flaw. It does not see that we gain pride both from our personal achievements and from the achievements of other members of our group.

We feel a rush of pride when one of our own wins an Olympic medal. We feel pride in the exceptional work done by our military. We feel proud to be Americans when an American business succeeds in the world market. And we are proud to belong to a nation that produces great artists, novelists, musicians, and dancers.

Pride is not merely an individual achievement; it ebbs and flows depending on the achievements of other members of our group.

If we want our children to have high self-esteem we should teach them to love their country, to appreciate its successes, and to contribute to new and greater successes.

This implies that we do not gain pride by worshipping the nation’s ideals.

Ideals might inspire people to achieve, but they might also lead them to find constant fault with the nation. Believing in ideals cannot ground a sense of pride.

Now, what happens to a college student’s self-esteem when he goes off to college and is force-fed anti-American propaganda?

We sit back and laugh at the utter stupidity of what passes for academic instruction in literature departments, but we should ask ourselves how a student’s pride might be damaged by the unrelentingly anti-American bias that has found a home there..

Reviewing the Cambridge History of the American Novel, Joseph Epstein summarizes the book’s point of view.

In his words: “A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism.”

Let’s understand that contemporary literary studies are in the business of producing guilt, alienation, and anomie. And let’s not forget depression and demoralization.

If you think that this is going to enhance anyone’s self-esteem, you do not understand self-esteem.

Unfortunately, the current state of literary studies is so bad that it defies criticism. If you tell it like it is you will sound like you are suffering from your own mental affliction. It is not possible that senior professors in respected academic institutions are as bad as you say. You must be exaggerating. It cannot be true.

Sorry to say, but it is true. It would be impossible to invent anything that is as incoherent, idiotic, and badly written as what passes for great thought among the nation’s most respected literature professors.

Here is a sentence taken from someone named Judith Butler.

Butler holds a chair at Berkeley; she has taught everywhere and is being taught everywhere. Within today’s academy, she is taken to be a great mind.

Here’s one of her sentences: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Want some more? Try this from University of Chicago English professor Homi Bhabha: “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Full disclosure: I am perfectly familiar with the theories that Butler and Bhabha are referring to.  Calling their writing mumbo jumbo would be too kind. It is complete crap.

Academic literature departments no longer recognize standards of literary value. They no longer reward good writing and clear thinking. Within their precincts there is no such thing as objective achievement.

If we had any sense at all we would see it as a national disgrace. If the best American universities invest their prestige in this blather, America has a very serious problem.

Students and their parents need to beware.

It makes good sense that the percentage of English majors, once 7.6%, has dropped to 3.9%. It also makes good sense that no employer will hire a humanities graduate of an Ivy League college, or of most other colleges, anymore.

Frankly, I think that 3.9% is too high. The problem will not be solved until students stop majoring in literature and stop taking literature courses.

Starve the beast, I would say.

Parents should advise their children against being exposed to such pseudo-theoretical claptrap, but they should also stop contributing to major American universities.

I know that universities teach much more than critical theory, but as long as they harbor this affliction and compromise their stature by supporting it, they are sorely in need of some tough love.

Take the book I just mentioned, the one with the august title: The Cambridge History of the American Novel. The book was edited by professors from prestigious institutions like Fordham, U. Conn, and Emory.

Weighing in at 4.5 pounds, containing over 1400 pages of text, bearing the imprimatur of the publishing arm of one of the world’s most prestigious universities, this book is a complete embarrassment.

Happily, its $185 list price will dissuade most people from buying it.

Still, it is a book that commands attention and confers prestige on a demented look at literature.

Reading Epstein’s review I envisioned a bunch of anarchists running through a museum defiling the art by spray-painting over it with graffiti.

Following fast upon these anarchists is a group of literary historians explaining that the anarchists had just engaged in some serious performance art. The historians do not bemoan the damage and destruction; they want to show you how the old works have gained contemporary relevance

Epstein explains that the authors whose work fills this volume have no real sense of the value of a literary work. They cannot tell you why William Faulkner is better than Allen Ginsburg, though they are more likely to prefer Allen Ginsburg because his poetry feels more like graffiti.

They do not care to hear what the literary work has to say. They hear only what they want to hear. Not even great literature can knock them off their hobbyhorse.

Epstein quotes a sentence from the book, one that talks  about The Great Gatsby. Be prepared for some dreadful writing: “Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . 'The Great Gatsby' (1925), where Nick Carraway's homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display."

Today’s literature professor neither knows or cares what literature is about. He does not believe that it has anything to teach him.

He gains his identity from feeling like he belongs to a domestic intellectual insurgency.

He wants to slash and burn, to destroy and deconstruct, to criticize and complain.

He will pretend that he is at the cutting edge of trendiness. And yet, as Epstein remarks, literature departments have become: “… intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die. If one is still looking for that living relic, the fully subscribed Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in an Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously. He finds a home there because English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender. ’How would [this volume] be organized,’ one of its contributors asks, ‘if race, gender, disability, and sexuality were not available?’"

Heck… it might have been organized to highlight the great achievements of American novelists. It might have been organized around American contributions to world literature. It might have been organized around the eternal and immutable value that resides in great art.

But, then again, the new theorists do not believe any of that. It would get in the way of their mission to render their students socially and morally dysfunctional.


The Ghost said...

snap ...

Did an english lit professor run over your dog ?

your post is going to leave a mark ...

well done sir ...

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