Old School

Where Bad Ideas Go to Die

July 22, 2008

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What did I learn from 8.5 years of graduate school in Creative Writing and English? Apart from useful stuff like how to structure a commercial screenplay, I realized that literature departments are where bad ideas go to die. That’s what I read between the lines of Russell Jacoby’s recent lament in the Chronicle of Higher Education:


How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in German. But have they migrated, or have they been expelled? Perhaps the home fields of Freud, Marx, and Hegel have turned arid. Perhaps those disciplines have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.


Now I don’t know enough about philosophy to talk about Hegel’s fate. I suspect that his eclipse had more to do with Kierkegaard’s critiques of the Lutheran “right-Hegelians” who tried to harness his thought as a kind of Augustinian theory of providential history… and with Marx’s successful kidnapping of the Dialectic. But I could be way off here… and look forward to hearing more from learned readers who follow the market in Hegel futures.


However, there are straightforward answers to Jacoby’s other questions. Why has the thought of Karl Marx largely disappeared from the classrooms and learned journals of the very discipline which he cultivated—economics? You’d think that question would be of interest to those who are still using his ideas to analyze topics in other disciplines. I mean, if you claim to believe (after Marx) that economic forces are the governing reality in history, and class inequality is the driving force of change, it’s probably relevant how reliable Marx’s theories are on their own terms—economic ones. Do they accurately analyze human behavior and—even better, from a “scientific” point of view—predict it? Have any of his original, descriptive analyses proven prescient, or his prescriptions for governing produced the promised effect? Well, no. You needn’t even point to the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, or the Killing Fields to make that point—although there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.


Likewise, in the very discipline which Sigmund Freud used as the launching point for an all-encompassing theory of human behavior—clinical psychology—his theories seem increasingly irrelevant. Leave aside the curious scientific status of a universal theory of man based on the idiosyncratic observations of one guy treating members of an infinitesimal slice of human society—wealthy Viennese neurotics in the late Habsburg Empire—which he dogmatically insisted were equally applicable to Hottentots. Look at the practical results: People treated at great length and expense through the methods of psychoanalysis don’t seem to get better… At least, not as quickly or as well as they do through either pharmacological intervention or more pragmatic varieties of “talk therapy” such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Given that Freud developed his theories based on his experience of… therapy, you’d think that this reality test would come to mean something to the scientifically minded. And so, after a very long cultural lag, it has. Among psychologists under 60 and outside the Upper West Side, the status of Freudian theory seems to be dropping to a spot in intellectual history somewhere below eugenics, but just above phrenology.


Although Jacoby doesn’t mention it, I can’t help observing that feminism, too, has failed to deliver on its promises—making women happier. Instead, it has shoveled them into the workplace while leaving them still burdened with most of the work of keeping house and raising kids… assuming there are any kids. Given the collapse of the birth rate in every society which has accepted feminist precepts, it seems at the very least to flunk the Darwin test; it is counter-adaptive. A pretty, pink suicide pill.


No such “reality tests,” of course, obtain in literature departments. Over long years of writing, publishing, and (worst of all) reading such papers, I’ve observed that literary essays are perfectly insulated from any such real-world feedback. If you start out by saying that you intend to conduct an analysis of (for instance) The Chronicles of Narnia along the lines of Lacanian theory (don’t ask), and you dutifully lay out your premises, then churn the book through its blades, no professor or editor would ever be such a philistine as to ask: “Well, are those premises true?” (I was rebuked many times in graduate seminars for asking just this, and quickly learned… not to mind being rebuked.)


Conveniently enough, the whole “question of truth” has been “problematized,” so your query would simply be vulgar. It would not serve as a valid starting point for criticizing an essay—but rather as a cultural marker that indicated: You are not one of us. You might as well start sporting a Sons of Confederate Veterans belt buckle, or a t-shirt that reads, “Fire me!”


The only thing that matters in the current environment of academic criticism is one’s skill at constructing self-contained, internally consistent “readings” of “cultural productions” that are “interesting.” Not the works—those can be dull as butter knives, and crassly simplistic texts make better theory fodder than masterpieces. No, the readings must be “interesting.” Better still if they are somehow more “radical” than what came before, somehow even more anti-bourgeois, anti-Christian, anti-American and anti-Caucasian than the last thing the professor or editor read on the subject.


There is no reason in principle why other failed theories shouldn’t be magically transported from the elephant graveyard of “bad science” into Never Never Land of Lit Crit. I look forward with interest to alchemical readings of Sophocles and Lamarckian Biblical criticism. I’d really enjoy a good, solid account of Toni Morrison firmly grounded in Nostradamus—in fact, it might actually convince me to slog through one of her novels.


None of this is to say, however, that conservatives who analyze literature and culture should ignore the psychological, economic, sexual and ethnic realities which infuse every work of literature—taking refuge, as some still do, in a Kantian formalism. New Criticism has many virtues as a method of reading poems, but its results are hardly exhaustive. There are many useful things which one can learn about a novel by examining the wide range of social phenomena mirrored in its pages—and about that reality from the book. A text that took no account of any of them would be of little interest… like, I’ll daresay, Finnegan’s Wake.


Rather than cede the ground of accounting for reality to the adherents of old, exploded theories, we cultural conservatives should enthusiastically examine the implications of literary works for the whole of human reality—from its biological depths and economic midriff, all the way up to its spiritual pinnacle. We need an economic criticism based on real economics, a sexual criticism grounded in biology and theology, a cultural criticism which acknowledges the presence of inequality, hierarchy, power-relations, and patriarchy… and where it’s appropriate, celebrates them.

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