Thursday, April 30, 2009

In theory

The latest installment in Your Humanities Degree Means Nothing falls into the category of things I'd rather not deal with, like studies telling you that everything seemingly innocuous in your life (the occasional steak! that one glass of wine!) will give you cancer. Plus, Rita already addressed the key points.

Mark Edmundson's take-down of the "readings" method of teaching literature courses, however, this I find interesting. What are readings? Explains Edmundson: "By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art."

Edmundson would be pleased: somehow I managed to get a BA in French Literature from a reputable college without once being asked to read a book through the lens of someone else. The Chicago Way, as I understood it, was to read each book, whether by Marx or Foucault, Flaubert or Proust, through your own lens. Meaning, it's not that we weren't introduced to critics, we just weren't told to mimic them in our own thinking, but instead to read them as we would read the authors themselves. (Or maybe the readings approach was the norm in all the French classes I didn't take? Of those, there weren't many...)

The only time it occurred to me that the 'what do you make of the book' method might cause problems was when I took a class where I was the only undergrad. The whole way through, it seemed as though there was some different language everyone else had been taught, above and beyond French, that I had not been let in on. I figured grad school orientation was a great big bang-you-over-the-head with 'This is Derrida and what you're to say when his name is mentioned.' I wrote a paper, I remember, in which I misspelled Lukacs, throughout. ('Lou Koch.' Just kidding. I hope?) The part of the paper where I read and wrote about Zola novels went OK, I guess, but the Language of Grad School remained a mystery. Since at that time I had no intention of going to grad school in French, I was not overly concerned.

Then, hello. Apparently at other schools, people are taught these matters as undergrads, and there is an assumption once you get to grad school that you Know. I'd learned heaps at Chicago, but the Names remained a mystery; I've been piecing them together, through classes and outside attempts, ever since.

Still, I like the Chicago approach, that just because a book is Great doesn't mean an 19-year-old can't read it and say something intelligent about it, or at least learn how to do so for next time. The readings approach is, for someone just starting college, potentially intimidating, since what you're essentially looking at when you read the Great Critics is what a Hum or Soc paper would look like if written by a god. Who needs that?

And, along those lines, I think Edmundson makes some great points.* However, he couldn't make those points were he not himself versed in the Language. Case in point:

"Thus Blake, admirable as he may be, needs to be read with skepticism; he requires a corrective, and the name of that corrective is Karl Marx. Just so, the corrective could be called Jacques Derrida (who would illuminate Blake the logocentrist); Foucault (who would demonstrate Blake's immersion in and implicit endorsement of an imprisoning society); Kristeva (who would be attuned to Blake's imperfections on the score of gender politics), and so on down the line."

Is the answer, then, to raise a generation of literature scholars who haven't a clue what the sentences above are getting at? Is Edmundson advocating that literature scholars not have the skills necessary to say what a Marxist view of Novel X? If the switch he suggests were to take place, how would there ever be any kind of conversation among scholars? If we ignore what's been written about books, why would anyone, then, write about books under the new regime?

Theory, as I understand it, is basically a lesson in humility, saying to the collective That Guy of humanities students that, 'Yes, genius, someone has thought of that before you, that, plus so many other things you'd never think of in a million years.' Then again, on this matter, I haven't a clue.

* However, here's where I'm not on board with Edmundson: He writes that someone who reads literature "sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she's inherited from her family and culture." Why is leaving one's culture of origin seen as the only true way to be 'converted' via literature? I ask because French literature turned me into a raving Zionist.

12 comments:

PG said...

Do you think your family and culture was one of raving Zionism?

I'd say that your family and culture probably were relatively lacking in overt anti-Semitism, and so the way of looking at the world that French lit introduced to you was a viewpoint saturated in anti-Semitism. Edmundson doesn't say you have to adopt those ways of looking at the world; as you have done, you can have a strong reaction against them/ use them to enlarge your understanding of how other people regard people of your ethnicity/religion.

UVa also didn't have much of this "read Dickens as a Marxist" sort of thing. Then again, we both went to relatively conservative universities. I don't know how it would go over with Chicago's donors, but I dunno that the Wahoo alumni or VA Assembly would be happy to hear that you couldn't get a humanities degree without being able to see the world through Marx's eyes.

I took a lot of political philosophy for bioethics, but in classes like that you're supposed to apply the thinkers directly to actual problems, not to literature. You used Marx on Rawls's writings to criticize Rawls's agenda, not to somehow get something more out of Rawls.

Drew said...

My experience of the Chicago method was that, by trial and error, it revealed to me that my so-called "personal" readings of the greats were actually socially and historically constructed. Which by one name is Marxist, by another name is just personal encounter and revelation.

Phoebe said...

"Do you think your family and culture was one of raving Zionism?"

One more distant relative aside, nope.

But I think what Edmundson was getting at, and what others who've made this critique are getting at (see: Saul Bellow's Ravelstein and its inspiration) is that education is supposed to take you away not only from your immediate family and its culture, but from whichever category of humanity they identify as, to turn you into an independent, free-thinking creature, at a distance from whatever group would have been your 'default'. No, I'm not explaining this at all right. But the point is, it surprises people that my good liberal arts education didn't lead to me thinking of all things Jewish as claustrophobic and overly particular. I think the expected result is universalism, implication being, no one's parents, ever, are themselves universalists.

Phoebe said...

That was to PG.

Drew:

What was your major? I'd heard rumors that in Comp Lit things might be a bit theoretical, maybe elsewhere as well, but the intro classes (Hum, Soc) I'd imagine were the 'what do you think of the book' method across the board.

Also, you write, "it revealed to me that my so-called "personal" readings of the greats were actually socially and historically constructed" - when you say that this was by "trial and error", did a prof ever point this out to you, or was it something you figured out while reading on your own?

Drew said...

Phoebe, I was an English lit major, and for a while a Fundamentals major before I got fed up with it.

I don't think I ever had a professor call me out on my lack of historical/social consciousness, did you? It was just the sort of thing I extrapolated from my own reactions to the books, plus some of those "correctives" from my profs (of the variety "but didn't you ever think to read Blake this way?").

I'm sure some people would disagree with me, but the English department feels like such a big tent that you could style your major with as much theory as you wanted or didn't want. And even in the high theory courses (except maybe for Veeder's classes) I never felt like any kind of "critical reading" or theory was being offered to me as anything other than a rhetorical corrective.

So yeah, in conclusion, Chicago liberal arts education still pwns, QED.

PG said...

"But I think what Edmundson was getting at, and what others who've made this critique are getting at (see: Saul Bellow's Ravelstein and its inspiration) is that education is supposed to take you away not only from your immediate family and its culture, but from whichever category of humanity they identify as, to turn you into an independent, free-thinking creature, at a distance from whatever group would have been your 'default'."

I haven't really found this to be the experience, especially among minorities. For example, I'm one of the few Indian-Americans I know who didn't come out of college more in touch with her identity as an Indian-American. Indeed, college creates a pan-Indian identity for many such people; they become more familiar with the traditions of people from other parts of the subcontinent, pick up bits of their languages, etc.

"But the point is, it surprises people that my good liberal arts education didn't lead to me thinking of all things Jewish as claustrophobic and overly particular."

I guess I don't get why they would think it should do that. Are these the kind of people who are surprised that black college students might spend some of their college years learning about and embracing the strengths of African/American culture? Or is it peculiar to Jews?

Matt said...

I'd tend to think that the reason why 19 year olds usually can't say anything very interesting about literature isn't that they don't know the right critical methods but that they have very limited experience with the world as of yet, and especially the majority of those in college have mostly so far been objects rather than agents in the world. That is, because they don't know very much, they can't say very much, but this is true well beyond critical methods. Of course this isn't true of all 19 year olds, but my experience is that it's true of many, perhaps most, of them. (It was likely true of me.)

You likely won't find all that much Derrida, Freud, Foucault, or Marx there, but for some good Hegel, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, the philosophy department at NYU has some terrific experts who regularly offer classes on them. It might be worth sitting in on, though of less direct use for 19th C. French lit than 20th, I guess.

Phoebe said...

Drew:

All of this is interesting. And I think you're right - Chicago degrees pretty much were, at least in French and I see also in English, what you made of them. My BA thesis wasn't even a literary paper - all they asked was that you write in French, on French texts.

PG:

"I guess I don't get why they would think it should do that. Are these the kind of people who are surprised that black college students might spend some of their college years learning about and embracing the strengths of African/American culture? Or is it peculiar to Jews?"

Yes, in my experience, it is peculiar to Jews. Kind of. Whereas it's considered normal - admirable, even - for members of other minority groups to 'find their identities' in college/upon liberation from the bounds of their parents, for Jews, enlightenment is supposed to mean breaking free of all that is 'too Jewish'. Because Jewishness is at once a minority status of which to be ashamed, and seen as a sort of whiter-than-whiteness, for which to apologize. (I could explain more precisely, but it would take a while...)

Matt:

As for reading at 19... There are obviously things you 'get' in books if you've had failed jobs, failed relationships, other grown-up challenges. But by 19, you've at least had to grapple with tough-grading teachers, crushes that didn't work out, friendships that weren't always 100%, something. I mean, I remember reading "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was 9 or so, old enough to understand all the words, but not old enough to 'get' any of it. Whereas by 19, I think, things are a bit different. (Plus, what 'life experiences' define adulthood these days, anyway? Struggling - or succeeding - financially? Having children? By some counts, many 40-year-olds wouldn't count, either.)

I definitely had the Hegel, Nietzche, etc. experience at Chicago - we read the texts (not that I remember as much as I should), it's just that we were never asked to use those texts as a lens through which to read novels or poems.

PG said...

Phoebe,

I wonder to what extent your getting surprised reactions to becoming 'more Jewish' in college has to do with coming from NYC, where Jews are a very large part of the population, and going to UChicago (I'm guessing ditto). One of my friends at UVa seems to have a "become more Jewish" experience there, but she was from Wisconsin and at a school with a relatively small Jewish population, so her doing so went along with any other minority's embracing their ethnic identity.

Phoebe said...

UChicago is Jewy for the Midwest, but is no Upper West Side, so while I say French literature made me a Zionist, I should add that encounters with some people who'd never met a Jew and weren't pleased to start meeting any couldn't have hurt.

But I do think the element of surprise comes from the idea that one goes to college to rid one's self of provincialism. A Jew who thinks about things Jewish is thought a 'provincial' in ways a black person who thinks about race issues is not. It's not that people of other groups aren't criticized for interest in their own, but you'd rarely hear the accusation of 'provincialism' in these other contexts.

PG said...

I'd never heard it for Jews who are interested in their Jewish identity, myself -- I thought the standard charge against Jews was actually cosmopolitanism and lack of identity with any Auld Sod. Wasn't that part of your problem with Palin, that her emphasis on small towns and having "roots" in a specific geography tended to shut out Jews?

Phoebe said...

Both are right, it just depends on the audience. A riled-up populist horde will indeed fault The Jew for a lack of connection to The Land. However, in intellectual circles, the ones in which no one's at risk for Sarah Palinism, a Jew interested in The Jews is indeed suspected of parochialism.