'In the penthouse of the Ivory Tower'
August 23, 2004 3:41 PM   Subscribe

' "Oh, you're going to the MLA? What a riot. They're a bunch of sitting ducks." I hadn't been planning to shoot at them, I said'. Lewis Kraus attends the 119th Annual MLA Conference, and asks what it means to be an English professor after the 'crisis of the humanities'.
posted by Sonny Jim (10 comments total)
I've read this article before, and, though it's really entertaining, I ended up feeling really disappointed in it. I'm a grad student in English, so, of course, I'm bound to be disappointed by any negative portrayal of my future profession -- but I think Kraus gets it all wrong at the MLA. Kraus's conclusion is something like: "Sure, lots of contemporary literary scholarship seems useless -- but that's okay, because literature is useless, and that's why we love it!" Sorry, but this is just wrongheaded.

I'm starting my second year of grad school, and I've read a ton of literary criticm. Lots of it is really, really, really terrible -- useless, tangential, and often stubbornly, even willfully, even perversely, untrue. The lesson from this type of criticism is not that all literary criticism and the teaching of literature are, in their natures, 'useless' and thus exempt from standards of quality; it's that there is lots of bad criticism out there that's not vital or interesting, and that this is, in part, the result of the pressure to publish that Kraus himself describes. Because Kraus is too star-struck, or whatever he is, to come out and say "this stuff is bad," he can't say with any conviction that any of it is good. This is crazy! Bad literary criticism is bad and useless; good criticism is good, valuable, and useful.

To my mind a much better discussion of criticism -- what it's for, how it relates to art, how it's good for society -- is in Helen Vendler's 2004 Jefferson lecture to the National Endowment for the Arts. It's a long but good read, and it takes literature and its teaching seriously, instead of starting from the assumption that literature and learning in general are only good because they're worthless in the real world -- a pretty lame assumption. A much better (and more profound) take on the whole mess, IMO.
posted by josh at 4:04 PM on August 23, 2004

I can't believe this hasn't been posted here already. Here's two other blog posts about it.
posted by kenko at 4:32 PM on August 23, 2004

posted by dash_slot- at 5:10 PM on August 23, 2004

So you're saying, what's needed is more criticism of criticism... metacriticism, if you will?
posted by Foosnark at 5:13 PM on August 23, 2004

Kraus's conclusion is something like: "Sure, lots of contemporary literary scholarship seems useless -- but that's okay, because literature is useless, and that's why we love it!" Sorry, but this is just wrongheaded.

Hmm. I read this article in The Believer last month, and got a different conclusion, something more like, "Sure, lots of contemporary literary scholarship *seems* useless -- but that's okay, because much of literature is not sappy pop culture, and it should not try to be."

Krauss seemed to bemoan attempts by academics to make their work "relevant" to people who aren't all that interested in modern literature in the first place.
posted by Ayn Marx at 5:20 PM on August 23, 2004

Ayn Marx -- he does write:

All of us, I think, would rather they be elliptically profound than banally useful.

I guess I think that if these are the only two choices he sees for the study of literature, he's not being very charitable. What about being both profound and useful? In the article, professors are either writing about Buffy or "somewhere way off to the side, staking out their misty marginal terrain." I just don't think that's accurate. I wish he'd been harder on the bad stuff, pop-culture related or not, and found something good in literary criticism instead of just "marginal" stuff that's boring, but which you enjoy for its "purity."
posted by josh at 7:07 PM on August 23, 2004

Amendment I - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression. Ratified 12/15/1791. Note

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

More than ever, it is hard to separate the actions of this government (read Bush administration) with that of the RNC. With that in mind, one doesn't find it hard to believe that the campaign that has been screening those who would like to see and hear the president and demanding an affirmation of intent to vote for a particular candidate, would stoop to the level of disrupting their own political convention.

What troubles me most is that I have heard various TV personalities question whether conventions have "outlived their usefulness." It seemed that they were boiling conventions down to simply being a mouthpiece whereby the parties express their platform. This is not the case. Political conventions are to be places where Joe and Jane Grassroots participate in the process of selecting a candidate who best represents their interests and shaping that very platform.

I primarily blame the GOP and the current occupant of the Whitehouse for much of this, though there is more than ample blame to spread around. There were many viable, interesting and diverse candidates on the Democrat side. But the process has boiled down to get Bush out at whatever cost. This led us to the situation we have now where we saw a basically uncontested Democratic convention and the rigged GOP convention that was delayed solely to wring every drop of blood out of Ground Zero that they could, and spend and raise as much money as possible to attack the Democratic ticket.

Lordy, Lordy help us!
posted by charms55 at 3:21 AM on August 24, 2004

Thanks for the links, Sonny and Josh.

What the hell, charms.
posted by kavasa at 8:22 AM on August 24, 2004

Charms, I think you missed.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2004

Hm. I'm only reading this now (which means this thread's probably already dead). But it was an interesting link.

Anyhow, I think that the primary mistake that the author makes is in his presumably well-meant assumption that even if the scholarly discourse he's hearing isn't understandable to him, it's understandable in some sense to other scholars--in more instances than one would like, at least in my experience, this is very clearly not the case.
posted by Prospero at 6:44 AM on August 25, 2004

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