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  • Tom

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I would like to express a bit of surprise that the arid, disdainful, inhumane and thoroughly discreditable theories of existence your are acknowledging are given even a modicum of serious thought. I’m reminded of a famous and admired French philosopher who said that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was “an interesting experiment.” That “experiment” was the most horrendous single decade in human history. If someone thinks the vision of slowing starving humans, who turn to selling their children for food or eating them, is interesting, I can’t imagine he or she has much useful to say (in this case, he). (Interestingly, Pol Pot was a fan of certain French philosophers.) Therefore, I don’t see the value of giving any quarter at all to hate-filled and anti-human theories. Additionally, they fly in the face of lived human experience (which you point out very well) and so are thoroughly baseless. Shame on ELH, in other words. They should unapologetically just say how ridiculous all of that is and and give the authors what they deserve: disdain. It seems that modern “liberal” thought is mostly an admiration of power, which may explain why I haven’t seen much sharp criticism against the sharia law that justifies oppressing women and hurls homosexuals off buildings. We shouldn’t forget the quote from Tacitus, “They make a desert (or desolation), and they call it peace.”

  • Ivan Appleton

    What is wrong with the field? As an outsider (a scientist with an interest in philosophy, and one who likes reading…a lot) I find myself shaking my head that such a field even exists. The very idea that a story is something to be analysed rather than enjoyed is baffling. Or, if it is to be analysed, the only point would be to try and explain why it has the effects on the reader that is has. Analysing them in terms of sociology is…sociology. Just like the sociology of science is sociology, not anything that scientists themselves are interested in at all. Why do you literary enthusiasts concern yourself with this stuff. Help people to understand and enjoy difficult books. That’s your job. Stop trying to ape scientists. I’m a biologist, and we’ve learnt not to try aping physicists, much for the better.

  • jim brogan

    there is literature (“what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”); there is talk about literature (engagement with the thing itself–Hamlet or Hecuba or Eloise to Abelard); there is talk about talk about literature; then this sort of thing (that there is something fatally wrong with the way we talk about talk about literature, though we can’t be sure what it is).
    what’s wrong is the abandonment of the literature. where in all this hand-wringing are the words of ANY actual writer of genius? no place. the academic study of literature avoids the literature. can we wonder that students find better things to do?

  • Corey F.

    It’s astounding to me that such a perspicuous and compelling analysis of the shallowness of contemporary scholarship in the discipline can also contain a sentence like “There is a place in academe for scholarship that responsibly weighs the benefits and costs to children of sex with adults.” As much as Dr. Ruddick recognizes the problems of the regnant academic ideology, she nonetheless still buys into it enough to believe that there is a “responsible” way to examine the “benefits” to children of sex with adults. This sort of hedging and qualification on a matter that deserves no hedging is also part of the problem. Why can’t we just call a spade a spade and say that we should have no truck with defenses of pedophilia–period? I guess it’s the fear of looking “conservative” and “moralistic.” I hope someone remembers to turn out the lights and lock the door when this whole show is over.

  • Richard Smoley

    The author really ought to write a sequel to this article showing how these tendencies foster anti-intellectualism in American life.

  • Jim

    I liked the point at the end where the author puts things in the context of the Boomers rejecting everything their parents believed in. It’s true, and many of the dysfunctional institutions and intellectual ennui of our current culture can be traced back to the excesses of the late 1960’s. Deconstruction did what it set out to do, it destroyed. Humans have innate drives to create and destroy. Deconstruction unleashed and nurtured the destructive impulse. I was an undergraduate in the early 1990’s and I look back at resentment of the “theory” that dominated my education. I didn’t know it then and it was only years later that I went back to discover all of the riches existing in literature, history and the other humanities.

  • Jon

    This presents us with a very difficult challenge because alongside (perhaps in tandem with) this supposed destructive attitude of moral detachment there is also the fervent moralization of the progressive-leaning criticism that wallows so totally in its sense of righteous rightness that it will hardly even acknowledge its own moralizing. It is probably emblematic of the intellectual crisis of the humanities that the choices now appear to be between the godawful cool of nihilism and the nausea-inducing privilege-mongering privilege-unmasking ressentiment routine of the so-called progressives (and please do allow me the benefit of assuming the hyphens and parentheses are ironic).

  • Peter

    I wonder how much of this tripe the academics actually believe? Or is all a pose – being a “rebel” and “transgressive” from the safety of a tenured post?

    In a game of competitive norm busting it should come as no surprise that the that the claims and “analysis” get more outrageous with each passing year.

  • Neil Ellingson

    It could be interesting to look at the evangelical Christian embrace of Derrida and Foucault and the ways some interpretations of their thought align with modern evangelical theology and practice, which strangely share many of the traits Ruddick identifies in contemporary humanities.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2000/10/wolfe-jacobs.htm
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/octoberweb-only/10-18-24.0.html?start=2

    If one wants a difficult French theorist to invoke for the type of retrieval she suggests, the work of Paul Ricoeur, a different cast of Christian and also a humanist, seems still to have been insufficiently plumbed in the humanities.

  • Toryhere

    The impression that I get is that these ‘scholars’ have actually eschewed scholarship for politics. Their ‘training’ in English seems to have made them bad historians and philosophers rather than good englsih scholars.
    If I may riff off Oscar Wilde, these ‘schlaors’ seem to know neither the price nor value of anything.

  • David O'Connor

    Here is a practical suggestion about giving writing assignments to students, and perhaps to ourselves: Instead of asking students to critique what they read, ask them to write an appreciation of it, to articulate a reason to be grateful for it. Grateful appreciation requires at least as much discipline as cynical irony, and is a lot better for one’s humility.

  • Mahood

    Just about perfect. Sad as all get-out how (to quote a grad student bon mot I heard recently) no one wants to “curate” the great works. I do.

  • e

    Autistic people have inner lives. The notion that most American psychoanalysts would find an assertion that they don’t “uncontroversial” is seriously troubling.

  • Alex

    Please redact your comment suggesting autistic people do not have inner lives. It really makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. The name autism even implies that inner experience, self-relation predominates.

  • James Higham

    This is dishonest for a start. I had to do my own research on Lisa Ruddick, Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres, the latter associated with this:

    Radical feminist and lesbian theory is passionate

    … which is a bit of giveaway. It’s dishonest because readers of the article have no way of knowing they’re dealing with hardcore feminists in academia, an egregious bunch to be sure. I was always taught that one had to attach one’s bona fides and date articles in order for the reader to know where the author was coming from.

    My own background is education and my last position tutor in English in Sicily, before that Professor of English in Russia, previously in the UK. I’ve been to US colleges on visits.

    The current struggle on all campuses is the social justice lunacy imparted to students by global left academics and alumni – I’ve written copiously on it at two sites. It was something I personally came up against in faculty and what distressed me the most was the dishonesty.

    Fine having irrational leftwing views but to impose them on students, allowing no chance of counterpoint or debate, betrays the whole purpose of colleges and the free dissemination of information. With the rise of Common Core and World Core Curriculum, plus IB, the situation has almost reached the state of irrecoverable.

    And looking at the backgrounds of these three women, plus reading some of their work, all are deeply into the social justice warrior malaise. Suspicion was immediately aroused, alarm bells went off, when reading, above:

    I’ve encountered two types of people who are having trouble adapting to the field. First, there are those who bridle at the left-political conformity of English …

    Meaning political hijacking of language – I write on this topic primarily.

    … and who voice complaints familiar from the culture wars. But a second group suffers from a malaise without a name; socialization to the discipline has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss.

    Unaccountable? We of the sane can account for it quite easily, it is that which has been engendered by just such people as the three named in this comment. My disadvantage is that I cannot post the 13,000 or so posts and the various works I’ve written on this matter in one comment, nor can I quote Camille Paglia in depth, nor Christina Hoff-Sommers.

    There is nothing wrong with these three women associated with this article secreting themselves away in some room and debating all this – the only thing they must not do under any circumstances is drag starry-eyed students into it because then it becomes propaganda.

  • Kathy

    I think an important distinction is missing in this article, namely the the idea that this way of thinking is defined by the term “liberal.” While many people in academia use this terminology and call their thinking liberal, many other liberals are the antithesis of this way of thinking and quite despised by most academics. These are the liberals very concerned with a sense of self and a holistic view of life, especially those in the healing fields like alternative healing practices and yoga and those who work in the trenches of society, such as social workers. These people are despised by academics about as much as those colleagues that let their love of their partner and/or family members determine their career path. The use of the word “liberal” has to be qualified.

  • AC

    It’s really too bad that this great article is going to become a lightning rod for anti-feminist, anti-humanities critiques (see comments above). Ruddick is very careful to give due consideration to the scholarship she quotes. A suggestion: don’t critique literature departments unless you’ve done some thorough reading. Not all scholarship is like Halberstam. Post-structuralism warrants a critique, but doesn’t warrant the bogeyman of relativism it’s treated as.

  • Thomas B Dewey II

    So the poststructuralists are eating their young.

  • AM

    I think I’ve spotted the unreachable “Other” of this essay. It’s the professor’s own students whose concerns are dismissed without discussion in the very first paragraph.

  • Joe cavanaugh

    This is from Lisa Ruddick’s bio on the university of chicago’s website:

    “My current scholarship takes up similar questions in the context of academic life and its rigors and rigidities. I am writing a book on the ways in which professional training in the humanities, conducted with the best of intentions, can thwart the feeling of aliveness by partially dissociating practitioners from their intuitions and their deep affective resources. It is an interesting time for people entering the field of English because just now we are seeing a phase of widespread soul-searching within the discipline, from which new theoretical paradigms and new approaches to the life of the text are emerging.”.

    This is mumbo-jumbo. Ms. Ruddick, I was an English major and I can say with certainty that it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. The field of English Literature is so full of inaccessible and opaque academic jargon that I cannot believe it is legal to teach this stuff. I’m frankly surprised there hasn’t been some kind of rebellion. What business does an English teacher have folding psychology, sociology and feminism into the study of literature? This is not your job. The great books were meant to be appreciated on their own terms. English Literature was not designed to “liberate” and Critical Theory has no place in it. Look, let’s be clear here. English Lit is not nuclear medicine. No matter how hard one tries to dress it up with fancy words like “transgressive” and “metatextual”, the fact remains that English Lit is “emotion recollected in tranquility” and nothing more. For the love of God the nonsense within English departments has to stop before more lives are ruined.

  • Yonah

    “It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.”
    The language of the holy is flowing gently under the surface of this important and circumspect critique. While I think it is better served there–precisely under the surface–I want to add that this must be the direction for scholarship seeking a stronger remedying flow. Academia in general, and English in particular, have persisted long enough in an intense autoimmune disorder wherein they attack and nullify the idea of the holy, the soul, and the “still small voice”–a quote that comes not from Donald Carveth but from the story of Elijah in the Book of Kings. The still small voice is the voice of kindness and truth that persists despite all the storms of sociocultural and imperial force and their theoretical construct-ghosts. It is the voice that guides Bible study and the recitation of yogic texts, both of which are flourishing in this country, in heart-centered voluntary human groups. Unfortunately such reading largely fails to be infused with the reading of our experts, because our experts have apparently adopted a post-theological concept of the Elect while abandoning the notion of the faithful shepherd, the pastor, which of course was the purpose of “literary” hermeneutics when many of our universities were founded.
    Sadly, I could add many religious studies departments to this picture, though the story is a bit different there, and stippled with kind passion.
    The key is the point the author makes about getting stuck in reaction to those forces that were seemingly oppressive to us in the past; this is a form of sickness, and falseness, and hopelessness. There is no reason that soul-care, and praise, should be disassociated from careful cross-textual reading, and subtle inner psychodynamics. Just look at the work of Avivah Zornberg, for instance. But that might require actually returning to the bible, at least the Hebrew bible, and beginning to repent, yes, repent, for depriving this central self-vessel from generations of students trying to read well (and in some latter-day way, trying to be good).

  • Mackenzie

    You make some valid and compelling points, but I can’t help but think that this article falls into the very form of critique, the “thrill of destruction,” that it is trying to get out from under–with an attack on the posthumanist and a privileging of “stigmatized” humanism. This strikes me as an understanding that lacks its necessary roots in the history of the discipline: how do people think about the posthuman, what value does it purportedly have, and why do you find this and not, say, the tired privileging of all things transgressive that comes from a misreading of Foucault, to be the cause of the malaise you pinpoint? If this article is committed to protecting the most vulnerable people in the academy through a return to the human, then why is it that queer theory, black studies, and feminist theory tend to be the disciplines for whom the critique of the human is the most valuable? Black studies, for example, has investigated the ways in which the very idea of humanism was built around the exclusion of black people. Why choose trans theorist Jack Halberstam as a target of your takedown, misnaming and misgendering him along the way? It would seem to me that the return to the human, as it is conceived here, might assume a post-racial, post-gendered landscape in the academy where we can happily return from the battlefields of the culture wars to the cozy work of rebuilding the (implicitly male) individual.

  • Mark Notzon

    I have been toying with the idea of writing a satirical musical on departments of English called, well, “English Departments–The Musical”. A wittier title might be “Hi, Seriousness!” but then nowadays there may only be few who remember rhe original signature phrase from Matthew Arnold’s writings. The book and plot would follow two “unreconstructed” male professorial types, say from the hey day of New Criticism, who open with the number “Just the Text, Ma’am, Nothing But the Text” a parodic echo of the famous line from the Jack Webb police detective television series: “Just the facts ma’am nothin’ but the facts.” Along the way one of them sings a duet with a Marxist post-structuralist feminist who belts out in Ethel Merman style, Any -ism that you know, I know one better/ I have an -ism better than yours. No, you don’t/Yes,,I do/ No, you don’t Yes, I Dooooooo!” The great set piece would be a song and dance routine in Bob Fosse choreographic style–“Slidin’ Under the Signifier,” daringly but tastefully erotic appealing to all sexual persuasions. The show ends with our heroes, greatly altered, meeting at the fount of perpetual Transformational Grammar, where all and, of course, only all utterances spew forth showering the cast. For literature, now cleansed of all qualities, is anything that is written, anything that can be read, and for the academia anything that can increase enrollment and/or advance a career. Joined arm in arm with “language arts” specialists from schools of education they sing and dance in Rockettes-style the rousing finale number,“That’s Edu-tainment!”

    The comic relief might be therapeutic for the very real anomie budding literary scholars suffer from, as discussed in the article.. It might be even cheaper than a session with a psychoanalyst, whom they could invite along, for dinner and a show.

  • Alex

    My thanks to the author for amending the article. It was an interesting read.

  • Ruth Vanita

    A number of literary critics have been consistently publishing both books and articles in what may broadly be called humanist traditions. Most of these scholars, however excellent their work, do not get positions at major universities or become academic stars but they do manage to publish with reputable presses.

  • max

    the footnotes do not open in my browser

  • Roug'd Riderhood

    The article speaks of the profession as alienated from the mainstream of American life (mostly politically) and in need of bolstering its identity by imposing a party line. But this view is implausible. The profession has a much greater need for its discourse to be internally differentiated–so that it can sustain conversations between its members when no one else is interested or listening. It ill have a need for accounts that may assume orthodoxies but which build on them in certain ways, typically by making them congruent with previously unrepresented or disregarded experiences.

    It is also a mistake to equate, as Riddick does, a critique of psychic self-cohesion or some form of groundedness with a critique of the punitive introjection of gender or sexual norms as forms of identity. It is understandable that feminists and queer theorists will be against the latter. But their motivation may simply to make lives thinkable and livable again for those with identifications that have been reprehended or stigmatised in non-academic culture. There is thus no reason to think their constructonist theories of identity commit them to any form of modish scepticism about norms of psychic consistency or self-care.

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This is an abridged version of an article that appears in The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions, edited by Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Full citations for all quotations in the excerpt below can be found in the original article.

 

In the course of interviewing some seventy graduate students in English for a book on the state of literary criticism, I’ve encountered two types of people who are having trouble adapting to the field. First, there are those who bridle at the left-political conformity of English and who voice complaints familiar from the culture wars. But a second group suffers from a malaise without a name; socialization to the discipline has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss.

Those in the latter group share a quality of inwardness. In interviews, they strike me as reflective, intuitive individuals, with English teacher written all over them. These are the people who say that something in this intellectual environment is eating them alive. Gina Hiatt, the president of a large coaching service for academic writers, tells me that many of her clients in the humanities have a similar experience. She believes these clients sense “an immorality they can’t put their finger on” in the thought-world of the humanities. They struggle as writers because talking the talk would make them feel complicit, yet they cannot afford to say, in Hiatt’s words, that “the emperor has no clothes.” Some keep their best ideas out of their scholarship for fear that if they violate certain ideological taboos, others will “hate” them (a verb Hiatt hears repeatedly). Hiatt describes these individuals as “canaries in the mine.”

Is there something unethical in contemporary criticism? This essay is not just for those who identify with the canaries in the mine, but for anyone who browses through current journals and is left with an impression of deadness or meanness. I believe that the progressive fervor of the humanities, while it reenergized inquiry in the 1980s and has since inspired countless valid lines of inquiry, masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured. This is the game of academic cool that flourished in the era of high theory. Yet what began as theory persists as style. Though it is hardly the case that everyone (progressive or otherwise) approves of this mode, it enjoys prestige, a fact that cannot but affect morale in the field as a whole.

The reflections that follow focus largely on English, my home discipline and a trendsetter for the other modern language disciplines. These days nothing in English is “cool” in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole. Some years ago Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick touched on this complex in her well-known essay on paranoid reading, where she identified a strain of “hatred” in criticism. Also salient is a more recent piece in which Bruno Latour has described how scholars slip from “critique” into “critical barbarity,” giving “cruel treatment” to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern. Rita Felski’s current work on the state of criticism has reenergized the conversation on the punitive attitudes encouraged by the hermeneutics of suspicion. And Susan Fraiman’s powerful analysis of the “cool male” intellectual style favored in academia is concerned with many of the same patterns I consider here. I hope to show that the kind of thinking these scholars, among others, have criticized has survived the supposed death of theory. More, it encourages an intellectual sadism that the profession would do well to reflect on.

Why has it been hard for this community to shift away from norms that make ruthlessness look like sophistication, even as dissenting voices are periodically raised and new trends keep promising to revitalize the field? The reflections that follow, in proposing some answers, touch on the secret life of groups.

My first focus is an article by Judith Halberstam that embodies a certain bad-boy manner that was fashionable in the 1990s. I will then describe some recent criticism that reflects the same style. Throughout I use scholarly examples, rather than just generalize about the discipline, because the patterns that concern me can be subtle and hard to spot. Without concrete analysis, I would have little to offer those who sense that there’s something wrong with criticism but (as Hiatt says) “can’t put their finger on” the problem. Yet the examples are not intended to give the impression that individual scholars are misbehaving. Everyone is responding to the same intellectual force field; the problem is systemic.

Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective. Ultimately I suggest that within English as a human system, this gestalt works to create a corps of compliant professionals. Novices subliminally absorb the message that they have no boundaries against the profession itself. The theories they master in graduate school are such as to make their own core selves—or what, within the lexicon of D. W. Winnicott, would be called their “true selves”—look suspect and easy to puncture analytically. What by contrast is untouchable, and supports a new and enhanced professional self, is what Slavoj Žižek, without apparent irony, has called “the inherent correctness of theory itself.”

Halberstam’s article hardly represents the best theoretical work of the 1990s. I introduce this piece because it embodies, almost in caricature, a studied coldness that enjoyed a vogue in that decade and has influenced subsequent criticism. Readers who know the novel The Silence of the Lambs or Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation will recall the murderer Buffalo Bill, who fashions a cloak from the skins of his female victims. In a well-known reading of the film, Halberstam suggests that Bill is as much “hero” as villain. For he “challenges the . . . misogynist constructions of the humanness, the naturalness, the interiority of gender.” By removing and wearing women’s skin, Bill refutes the idea that maleness and femaleness are carried within us. “Gender,” Halberstam explains, is “always posthuman, always a sewing job which stitches identity into a body bag.” The corpse, once flayed, “is no woman”; “it has been degendered, it is postgender, skinned and fleshed.” Halberstam blends her perspective uncritically with the hero-villain’s posthuman sensibility, which she sees as registering “a historical shift” to an era marked by the destruction of gender binaries and “of the boundary between inside and outside.”

In her more responsible, empirical work on gender identities, Halberstam has described some of the ways in which society does “stitch” people into genders that are taken for natural. But here she reads a fictional text allegorically, to suggest that there is no selfhood at all beneath our cultural stitching. For if Bill pulls each victim apart without concern for what the article skeptically calls an “inner life,” it is apparently because there is no such thing as an inner life. Not only gender but also “identity . . . proves only to be skin deep.” Bill “hates identity” and addresses his victims as “it.” He enacts “a carnage of identity.” Yet the article gives us no terms in which to describe this as unhealthy or cruel behavior.

An extensive academic conversation has, of course, questioned the ideals of the inner life and the bounded individual, on the strength of various critiques of liberal individualism. Some of the most powerful scholarship of the last decades is rooted in this more or less Marxist intellectual tradition.[1] Among other things, this work has shown how liberal theory, in presuming that “man” is ideally self-possessed and autonomous, overlooks the shaping influence of the market and of social relationships. Yet antiliberalism has many variants. In its cool variant, it denies the value of human individuality and self-boundaries—an attitude arguably remote from Marx’s own.[2]

In place of compassion for the fictional victim, Halberstam offers a heady identification with the “hero” who dismantles the victim to the glory of a field-honored theory about the artificiality of gender. The abstractions trump the human realities: this is the mark of sexy academic thought. A reviewer hailed Halberstam’s article as modeling “exciting possibilities for feminist and queer criticism of contemporary horror films.” And the essay was well enough regarded to have been reprinted in an anthology showcasing posthumanist criticism, and again in the award-winning Transgender Studies Reader. The editors of the latter volume introduce the essay not as an account of a peculiar fictional world but as an important theoretical intervention, offering a new perspective on the actual nature of subjectivity. They assert that “[Halberstam] looks beyond available categories of gendered personhood and sexed embodiment to develop a new, potentially post-human, construct of the self.” But what is a “construct of the self” that suggests that beneath the skin, no one is home? While I would hardly say that theoretical work like this should be excluded from the conversation, it seems fair to ask why it should be overvalued.

Let us assume a proposition that most American psychoanalysts would find uncontroversial, namely that human beings have inner lives—ideally rich ones—and a degree of self-cohesion.* As students are brought into our profession, they typically learn to see this view as that of “mainstream psychology,” which in turn is fraught with bourgeois ideology. Their theoretical training, as a rule, gives them scant exposure to the many contemporary theories that validate the human potential for inwardness and psychic integrity.[3] Instead, they are assigned theories arguing, at an extreme, that the very border between inner and outer worlds is (as Judith Butler has argued) “maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control.” They will also occasionally encounter work that uses the profession’s radical critique of interiority and autonomy to make the shattering of selves look edgy and progressive. I nowhere mean to suggest that the profession does not offer good criticisms of U.S. ideology. The problem is the scorn for self-cohesion that has wound itself in with the project of social critique.

As I have already intimated, an intellectual regime so designed discourages initiates from identifying with their own capacity for centered, integrated selfhood. Some will identify instead with the aggressor, turning against the soft “interiority” that the profession belittles. As a more moderate option, scholars can adopt a neutral historicist voice that allows them to handle the inner life—someone else’s—as a historical curiosity, without attributing value to it. (As one of my interviewees ruefully remarked, “You can write about anything so long as it is dead.”) Either way, the distanced attitude toward inwardness takes a toll.

The management scholar Ann Rippin, borrowing an image from a fairy tale, describes the “silver hands” with which organizations endow their members. Recruits to professional organizations, Rippin writes, are trained in glossy but dehumanized ways of speaking and feeling. The work they learn to do “is silver service done at arm’s length, hygienically, through a polished, highly wrought intermediary instrument.” In time, many of those so socialized “report feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work, [and] being obliged to dismember or disaggregate themselves, having to suspend feelings, ethics, values on occasion.” I think our profession has its own version of silver-handedness, exacerbated by theoretical orthodoxies that suggest we never had a “whole self” to lose in the first place. Nothing inherently makes the theories that dismiss the idea of integrated selfhood better than the alternatives; they are just preferred by this academic community.[4]

I believe that when a scholar traffics in antihumanist theories for purposes of professional advancement, his or her private self stands in the doorway, listening in. When it hears things that make it feel unwanted—for example, that it is a “Kantian” or “bourgeois” fantasy—it can go mute. I have spoken with many young academics who say that their theoretical training has left them benumbed. After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel. It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.

The poststructuralist critique of the self, though associated with progressive politics, has an unobserved, conservative effect on the lived world of the profession. It protects the institutional status quo by promoting the evacuation of selves into the group. In the story behind the story, the decentered subject is the practitioner who internalizes the distaste for the inner life and loses touch with the subjective reserves that could offset his or her merger with the profession. What is correspondingly strengthened is the cohesion of the collective. For our profession, alienated in various ways from the American mainstream, needs members who will band together. One way to get members to commit to the group and its ideology is to make them feel ashamed of the varied, private intuitions and desires that might diversify their interests.

I recently surveyed the last nine years of publication in the journal ELH: English Literary History to check my sense of the field against a core sample of contemporary criticism. I chose ELH for review because it is a distinguished, mainstream academic journal, one that does not have biases marking it off from the discipline of English as a whole. (As my colleague W. J. T. Mitchell writes, “ELH has been the gold standard of literary scholarship for as long as I can remember.”) More, it is a journal I have long admired myself. The work it selects has a literary-critical delicacy, an erudition, and a relative lack of cant that make for interesting, often surprising reading. I reasoned that if there was an ideological problem in English—pervasively—I would find its imprint even in the best, most flexible (top) journal I could identify. And if I did not find the problem here, that would be informative as well.

What I found was that within the nine-year span, a small but annually growing number of articles challenge the high-theoretical pieties, a pattern that suggests that the much discussed death of theory is not entirely illusory. But if high theory is dead, it still speaks from the grave, determining which ideas go without saying and which by contrast require cautious, rigorous defense. As to the question of selfhood, I found that the work published in ELH largely defers to the field-honored notion that selfhood and privacy either are illusions or are actual experiences that reflect a worthless bourgeois ideology. Correspondingly, we find a left-inflected approbation for whatever is collective and anonymous, sometimes conjoined with a postmodern affinity for what is flat or depthless.

ELH contains many articles—often superb ones—on questions unrelated to the nature of subjectivity. But where psychological life is concerned, the premises of high theory still prevail. In the meantime, the occasional article uses the profession’s skepticism about interiority as a pretext for idealizing interpersonal violence. In what follows, I can point to these patterns by way of some representative examples.

In a piece that offers the critique of personhood in stark form, the prose romances of William Morris are praised for modeling a society devoid of private property and of individual human personalities. The article suggests that in Morris’s “grim present”—the actual social world of late Victorian Britain—the “individual idiosyncrasy” of human beings was “overvalued.” Further, the feeling of “personal identity” enjoyed by the Victorians was a species of “portable property,” like the other kinds of “private property” enjoyed by “disaggregated liberal subjects.” Morris’s socialist fiction, by contrast, offers a scheme for a society whose members would lack a “durable sense of self” and even any “differentiation between persons.”

The people in Morris’s alternative world are so interchangeable that none retains his or her “affinities” for loved ones even for the duration of a trip away from home. The article calls this lack of human imprinting an “enviable forgetting.” Characters kiss and hug “so indiscriminately” that the line differentiating persons “blurs,” marking the end of “selfish individual desire.” As an account of Morris’s peculiar social vision, the essay is valid and interesting. But it troubles me to see Morris’s extreme worldview held up uncritically, and its characters’ depersonalized condition called “enviable.” We read, further, that Morris’s books have “the power to persuade readers” that their culture overvalues “cultural durability, like individual idiosyncrasy,” and that Morris evokes, for those in his “grim present,” “the hope of a shared vision.”

The dismissal of personal identity as a form of private property is an inheritance from high theory. A similar rhetoric appeared, for example, in an article in which Fredric Jameson suggested that “bourgeois” individuals experience their “ego” as “secur[e],” feel they have a “unique personal self,” and believe in “some unique life or destiny that [one] might claim as a privilege (or indeed as a form of spiritual or existential private property).” The words “bourgeois,” “privilege,” and “private property” cast the taint of middle-class entitlement on anyone who hopes for a stable sense of self. The general academic distaste for the “ego” is due partly to the influence of Lacanian theory on this community.[5] Yet ego functioning is an essential human capacity, without which no one would be able to keep a promise or take responsibility for his or her behavior. Too often, literary criticism conflates this capacity with the illusion of rock-solid selfhood that modern capitalist societies arguably encourage in their members.

Also attributed to an oppressive bourgeois ideology is the human capacity for self-organization and self-regulation. For example, and still within ELH, we find an article describing how the mid-Victorian “discipline of the nervous body” encouraged a form of self-regulation based on “modern modes of regulatory order, efficiency, and rational self-control.” Another piece suggests that “self-reflecting individuality”—the sense of having a distinctive inner life that one can reflect on—is a product of the “individualism” promoted by “industrial capitalism [and] middle class enterprise.” And the very sense of having a self with boundaries—however flexible—appears in ELH largely in its negative version. For example, bounded selfhood is associated with the “imperious self-containment” proposed by humanism, or (different article, same paradigm) “the masculine, self-contained, ‘Western individual.’” Perhaps the most suspect of all the ideas connected with selfhood is that of “self-cultivation,” which another article conflates with the kind of personal “development” that creates “upward mobility” and lands a person “squarely in the professional middle class.”

Yet there is a near silence as to whether there exist any positive, beneficial forms of self-organization, individuality, inwardness, or self-boundaries. The stigma of “humanism” has made these ideals look retrograde. Those pieces in ELH that do speak affirmatively about inwardness tend to take a muted, historicist approach. I think, for example, of a lovely article about the Quaker “inner light,” which, alas, views the latter as an effect of “early modern masculinity,” something contemporary academics would hardly identify with. By contrast, those who think little of interiority can reject this concept outright, with decades of theoretical opinion behind them. They can say, for example, without spending time defending their views, that “the truth of inner life” is a construct of “enlightenment thinking about selfhood” and an extension of “humanist” and “Christian” ideology.

Very occasionally, an article within the nine-year sample does suggest that differentiated selfhood has something to recommend it. According to an unspoken rule, a scholar can risk entertaining such a humanist idea if he or she is writing about a socially marginal or oppressed group. An example is a thoughtful article on Wilde that proposes, against the theories of Judith Butler, that there exists “some perdurable form of selfhood that performative acts can neither contain nor efface.” More simply, it is valuable to have “a coherent sense of self.” Because the focus is on Wilde and homoerotic desire, the supposed conservatism of the ideal of self-coherence is offset and the article is viable. On the other hand, unlike scholarship that dispenses with selfhood, this piece (again) engages meticulously with opposing opinion.

Our profession’s devaluation of selfhood, passed from one generation to the next, softens members up for the demands the profession makes on their own selves. If it is “bourgeois” to care about your identity and your boundaries, perhaps you might throw your own identity and boundaries on the altar of your career. I am struck, too, by the fact that current scholarship reflects a strong bias toward noncommittal sex. Our journals offer scant encouragement either for communion with oneself or for abiding connection to a partner—both experiences that could offer leverage against the encompassing group.

In the pages of ELH, we read for example that “free love” is a “radical” answer to the monogamy that serves “a capitalist and patriarchal sense of property and propriety.” Or we find that in the Restoration, “resistance” to the bleak “disciplinary” regulation of sexuality was found in “egalitarian” public spaces where “Individual women’s bodies … all blend into one another, ultimately signifying only a space to divest one’s bodily fluids and slake sexual desire.” In another piece, we learn that a particular character’s rejection of “jealous, obsessive monogamy … challenges naïve notions of the endurance or singularity of … love.”

When the focus shifts to attached couples, high marks go to “depersonalizing [sexual] intimacies” devoid of “meaningfulness and personal relation.” In the meantime, there are many negative or skeptical representations of committed pairs. To select from a myriad illustrations, we read that “abstracted heterosocial coupling” is one of the requirements of “a sentimental polity,” and elsewhere that “Home is, of course, a disciplinary mechanism.” Or we read of “couplehood’s little platoon,” set within “the defensive provincialism of the family group.” Or again, within the “the middle-class home” one finds “the domestic sanctum of bourgeois order.” Correspondingly, the rare articles that view sustained romantic commitment as offering something positive to at least some individuals take a defensive tone, acknowledging all the standard critiques of “bourgeois romantic love.” Alternatively, they assume a safely historicist posture. Milton thinks that “sexual relations touch the soul as well as the body”; but then again, this idea falls within “the humanist understanding of companionate marriage.”

Each of the articles just cited has serious value as literary criticism. Yet when one masses all the work in ELH together, it is clear that our profession—for purposes of print—has a bias against one-on-one attachment. This attitude springs, of course, from a perceived need to question the privileging of the married couple within modern societies. But one possible real-world outcome of the steady stream of “depersonalizing intimacies” in our publications is to depress readers’ faith in the loving attachments that might give them some distance on their professional identities.

I am aware of possibly sounding like a tub-thumper for monogamy. But the profession’s cynical attitude toward love is just one small aspect of its drive to flatten anything (except politics) that might nourish a human being with its aliveness. Our journals subtly discourage readers from believing that the world offers them a range of “integral objects”—a term the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas uses to describe any entity or experience whose unique form and vitality enrich our inner world.

To elaborate, our profession often speaks affirmatively of sex when it either “shatters” a person or violates social norms.[6] Any one lover could presumably be traded for another, so long as the requisite effects occurred. What is discounted is the idea of valuing a lover for the one being he or she is, with the inner richness and consistency that could make for an “integral” relationship. And while I have focused on the academic devaluation of love, I could as easily have considered the ways in which current criticism discourages readers from experiencing poems as integral objects, the ways in which it occludes the author’s mind as a potential integral object, and the ways in which it discounts the invaluable human capacity to experience life itself as an integral object.[7]

The greedy institution has a stake, altogether, in impoverishing its members’ object worlds. It promotes a hollowness, which can then be compensated with the satisfactions of status and affiliation within the group. Perhaps this is a tendency of all professional life. But when, as has happened in English, the soul-sapping quality of professional collectives finds an alibi in the anti-individualist ideology of left postmodernism, we have the conditions for quite a bit of mystification and malaise.

 

 

Finally, a small subset of work in ELH glamorizes cruelty in the name of radical politics, though this motif abates after 2006, perhaps because of a change in editorial leadership. The piece I find most troubling is an article on a short story by Henry James. This article proposes that if one faces a choice between having sex with children and protecting them, “perhaps one should let oneself desire the child, and—relinquishing the gratifications of protection—let the child die.” Sexually precocious children should “perhaps” be allowed a death of “innocence” that will supplant the pleasures of childhood with “other pleasures” delivered by adult lovers. James’s short story supposedly conveys this moral. But the lesson is said to apply in real life as well, wherever adults might be tempted to issue “calls for the protection of children.” The story is said to reveal “the dire results of protecting children from desire”—anywhere. For today’s anti-pedophile perpetrates the “potential violence” of “speaking on [children’s] behalf.”

There is a place in academe for scholarship that responsibly weighs the benefits and costs to children of sex with adults. But the present piece offers no empirical findings. Instead, it manipulates postmodern commonplaces to argue that people who try to shield children from “the depredations of influence and seduction” are imputing to children boundaries that they do not have. Children cannot be “corrupted” sexually because no child has a core of selfhood that has not already been thoroughly penetrated or “influenced” by society and language. We are asked to acknowledge “selves’ constitutive corruption.” For the mere phenomenon of influence is apparently so destabilizing that it “throws into question the attribution—particularly to oneself—of substantive depths, of ‘inner’ selves or meaning behind appearances.” A haze of familiar antihumanist abstractions thus eases in the practical conclusion as to the pointlessness of trying to protect children’s “‘inner’ selves” from violation.

One wonders who really believes in this kind of thinking. (And I would hardly assume that the author himself inhabits, for purposes of real life, the values here expressed.) But when the author’s book-length treatment of the same ideas appeared, even more explicit in its brief against the criminalization of pedophilia, colleagues did not criticize it in print. The book was evidently a hot potato, as it went virtually untouched by reviewers, pro or con. What would be so bad about saying that something is wrong here?

Far afield of the academic humanities, I have come across references to a human capacity called the inner teacher. Maria Montessori built her educational theory on the belief that instructors must “give priority to the inner teacher who animated” the child. Tibetan Buddhists refer to wisdom as an inner teacher that sits at our hearts. Recently the psychoanalyst Donald Carveth has offered a rich theoretical account of a mental structure he calls conscience, a “still small voice” (distinct from the punitive superego) that represents the moral center of the personality. But if the inner teacher exists, it appears in our own profession’s discourse largely in the aspect of its ignominious doubles, such as bourgeois common sense and Kantian reason.[8] I believe that under such conditions, the faculty of moral discernment gets weakened through a sheer lack of affirmation. When people encounter vicious ideas veiled in political radicalism, they start subordinating their inner teacher to an inner censor that tells them how “conservative” and “moralistic” they will look if they protest.[9]

Yet in closing, I want to acknowledge the very occasional article in ELH that does argue for an ethical faculty belonging to the private self. In particular, a beautiful piece on the fiction of Samuel Richardson, published in 2012, is perhaps—if one can read small signs—indicative of a growing conceptual freedom. This article makes a circuit through the theories of Hannah Arendt to validate the subjective domain that Richardson calls the heart. This is the seat of conscience, a place of private judgment and self-reflection that is meaningfully autonomous, though formed in intercourse with others. The article, true to pattern, dutifully engages with opposing postmodern opinion, according to which its own arguments could be criticized as embodiments of “the humanist sublime.” Nonetheless this is a daring, interesting piece of scholarship, whose publication is cheering. In advising our own students, we would do well to encourage more work like this, which does not see the threat of being called a humanist as a reason not to press forward conceptually.

I sometimes think that many academics of my own boomer generation, awakened as young people to the greed and violence of modern society, reacted as monks do who flee to the cloister to purge themselves of all that the world cherishes. If the capitalists valued aesthetic pleasure, we academics would take no pleasure in the beauty of the books we taught. If those in power used morality as a pretext for spreading social stigma, we would renounce the idea of the inner teacher. If the same people cherished home and family above the larger community, we would spurn home and family. The deprivation of inwardness that I have just noted in the pages of one of our journals is due partly to a poignant asceticism.

But life moves fast in academe. We do not teach our recruits any of the contemplative practices that might help them to keep their self-compassion intact in the face of such an abasement of self. Under such conditions, the asceticism of academia has become twisted and mean. The revulsion against human evil has devolved into a name-calling that rules out much of what makes life meaningful. At the same time, our finest inner promptings come under discursive attack as something we should be embarrassed to own. I imagine that some of the scholars who turn up in Gina Hiatt’s practice with writer’s block are people who have been unable to sustain themselves in such a punishing environment.

The only way now to replenish academic discourse is through innumerable tiny acts of courage in which people say the uncool things, as the last scholar cited above does. It will doubtless feel uncomfortable to do so. But the next big thing in theory, whatever it may be, is not going to cleanse the fear out of this environment. I believe we have to face it down ourselves.

Image credit: pyramidpetals/flickr

*As originally published on this site, this sentence contained, at this point, the phrase “unless autistic or seriously troubled.” But an online commenter pointed out, quite validly, that autistic people do have inner lives. I regret my original formulation, and have deleted the phrase. —LR

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. An example is N. Katherine Hayles’s “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest,” in New Literary History (Summer 1999). I select this article, amid countless possible examples, for its insightfulness and for its concision in summarizing certain standard arguments against the liberal idea of “individual self-possession.”
  2. For a survey of divergent scholarly understandings of Marx’s attitude toward human individuality, see Chapter 3 of Terrell Carver’s The Postmodern Marx.
  3. Object relations psychoanalysis—not to mention its descendant, relational theory—is just one perspective that offers a strong alternative to poststructuralism in this regard. It has made some inroads into contemporary criticism, but its more or less “humanist” feel has kept its status low in our field. For three articles, however, that describe what object relations offers as an alternative to poststructuralism, see Souter, “Products”; Johnson, “Using People”; and Snediker, “Queer Optimism.”
  4. For a fine study that, from a clinician’s perspective, weighs the theory of the decentered subject against competing theories that view self-cohesion as a strength, see the chapter on Lacan and Winnicott in Jane Flax’s Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West.
  5. For a clarifying analysis of the issues, which attributes the problem not to Lacan but to those who have misunderstood him, see Joseph H. Smith’s “Ego Psychology and the Language of Lacan: Transference and Affect” in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought (1990). “Lacan’s work need not be taken as opposed to ego psychology. His thought is not in contrast to ego psychology but to defensive ego functioning.”
  6. See for example Leo Bersani’s influential “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in October (Winter 1987). Within ELH, see for example Anahid Nersessian, “Radical Love and the Political Romance: Shelley after the Jacobin Novel, ” which relies on Jean-Luc Nancy’s “account of love as an experience of being shattered.”
  7. On the capacity to experience life as an integral object, see Christopher Bollas’s Cracking Up: The Work of Unconscious Experience.
  8. For a brilliant defense, however, of what goes by the name of Kantian reason, see John Brenkman’s “Extreme Criticism” in Critical Inquiry (1999).
  9. I owe the idea of an inner censor to a conversation with Angelika Bammer.
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  • Tom

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I would like to express a bit of surprise that the arid, disdainful, inhumane and thoroughly discreditable theories of existence your are acknowledging are given even a modicum of serious thought. I’m reminded of a famous and admired French philosopher who said that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was “an interesting experiment.” That “experiment” was the most horrendous single decade in human history. If someone thinks the vision of slowing starving humans, who turn to selling their children for food or eating them, is interesting, I can’t imagine he or she has much useful to say (in this case, he). (Interestingly, Pol Pot was a fan of certain French philosophers.) Therefore, I don’t see the value of giving any quarter at all to hate-filled and anti-human theories. Additionally, they fly in the face of lived human experience (which you point out very well) and so are thoroughly baseless. Shame on ELH, in other words. They should unapologetically just say how ridiculous all of that is and and give the authors what they deserve: disdain. It seems that modern “liberal” thought is mostly an admiration of power, which may explain why I haven’t seen much sharp criticism against the sharia law that justifies oppressing women and hurls homosexuals off buildings. We shouldn’t forget the quote from Tacitus, “They make a desert (or desolation), and they call it peace.”

  • Ivan Appleton

    What is wrong with the field? As an outsider (a scientist with an interest in philosophy, and one who likes reading…a lot) I find myself shaking my head that such a field even exists. The very idea that a story is something to be analysed rather than enjoyed is baffling. Or, if it is to be analysed, the only point would be to try and explain why it has the effects on the reader that is has. Analysing them in terms of sociology is…sociology. Just like the sociology of science is sociology, not anything that scientists themselves are interested in at all. Why do you literary enthusiasts concern yourself with this stuff. Help people to understand and enjoy difficult books. That’s your job. Stop trying to ape scientists. I’m a biologist, and we’ve learnt not to try aping physicists, much for the better.

  • jim brogan

    there is literature (“what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”); there is talk about literature (engagement with the thing itself–Hamlet or Hecuba or Eloise to Abelard); there is talk about talk about literature; then this sort of thing (that there is something fatally wrong with the way we talk about talk about literature, though we can’t be sure what it is).
    what’s wrong is the abandonment of the literature. where in all this hand-wringing are the words of ANY actual writer of genius? no place. the academic study of literature avoids the literature. can we wonder that students find better things to do?

  • Corey F.

    It’s astounding to me that such a perspicuous and compelling analysis of the shallowness of contemporary scholarship in the discipline can also contain a sentence like “There is a place in academe for scholarship that responsibly weighs the benefits and costs to children of sex with adults.” As much as Dr. Ruddick recognizes the problems of the regnant academic ideology, she nonetheless still buys into it enough to believe that there is a “responsible” way to examine the “benefits” to children of sex with adults. This sort of hedging and qualification on a matter that deserves no hedging is also part of the problem. Why can’t we just call a spade a spade and say that we should have no truck with defenses of pedophilia–period? I guess it’s the fear of looking “conservative” and “moralistic.” I hope someone remembers to turn out the lights and lock the door when this whole show is over.

  • Richard Smoley

    The author really ought to write a sequel to this article showing how these tendencies foster anti-intellectualism in American life.

  • Jim

    I liked the point at the end where the author puts things in the context of the Boomers rejecting everything their parents believed in. It’s true, and many of the dysfunctional institutions and intellectual ennui of our current culture can be traced back to the excesses of the late 1960’s. Deconstruction did what it set out to do, it destroyed. Humans have innate drives to create and destroy. Deconstruction unleashed and nurtured the destructive impulse. I was an undergraduate in the early 1990’s and I look back at resentment of the “theory” that dominated my education. I didn’t know it then and it was only years later that I went back to discover all of the riches existing in literature, history and the other humanities.

  • Jon

    This presents us with a very difficult challenge because alongside (perhaps in tandem with) this supposed destructive attitude of moral detachment there is also the fervent moralization of the progressive-leaning criticism that wallows so totally in its sense of righteous rightness that it will hardly even acknowledge its own moralizing. It is probably emblematic of the intellectual crisis of the humanities that the choices now appear to be between the godawful cool of nihilism and the nausea-inducing privilege-mongering privilege-unmasking ressentiment routine of the so-called progressives (and please do allow me the benefit of assuming the hyphens and parentheses are ironic).

  • Peter

    I wonder how much of this tripe the academics actually believe? Or is all a pose – being a “rebel” and “transgressive” from the safety of a tenured post?

    In a game of competitive norm busting it should come as no surprise that the that the claims and “analysis” get more outrageous with each passing year.

  • Neil Ellingson

    It could be interesting to look at the evangelical Christian embrace of Derrida and Foucault and the ways some interpretations of their thought align with modern evangelical theology and practice, which strangely share many of the traits Ruddick identifies in contemporary humanities.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2000/10/wolfe-jacobs.htm
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/octoberweb-only/10-18-24.0.html?start=2

    If one wants a difficult French theorist to invoke for the type of retrieval she suggests, the work of Paul Ricoeur, a different cast of Christian and also a humanist, seems still to have been insufficiently plumbed in the humanities.

  • Toryhere

    The impression that I get is that these ‘scholars’ have actually eschewed scholarship for politics. Their ‘training’ in English seems to have made them bad historians and philosophers rather than good englsih scholars.
    If I may riff off Oscar Wilde, these ‘schlaors’ seem to know neither the price nor value of anything.

  • David O'Connor

    Here is a practical suggestion about giving writing assignments to students, and perhaps to ourselves: Instead of asking students to critique what they read, ask them to write an appreciation of it, to articulate a reason to be grateful for it. Grateful appreciation requires at least as much discipline as cynical irony, and is a lot better for one’s humility.

  • Mahood

    Just about perfect. Sad as all get-out how (to quote a grad student bon mot I heard recently) no one wants to “curate” the great works. I do.

  • e

    Autistic people have inner lives. The notion that most American psychoanalysts would find an assertion that they don’t “uncontroversial” is seriously troubling.

  • Alex

    Please redact your comment suggesting autistic people do not have inner lives. It really makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. The name autism even implies that inner experience, self-relation predominates.

  • James Higham

    This is dishonest for a start. I had to do my own research on Lisa Ruddick, Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres, the latter associated with this:

    Radical feminist and lesbian theory is passionate

    … which is a bit of giveaway. It’s dishonest because readers of the article have no way of knowing they’re dealing with hardcore feminists in academia, an egregious bunch to be sure. I was always taught that one had to attach one’s bona fides and date articles in order for the reader to know where the author was coming from.

    My own background is education and my last position tutor in English in Sicily, before that Professor of English in Russia, previously in the UK. I’ve been to US colleges on visits.

    The current struggle on all campuses is the social justice lunacy imparted to students by global left academics and alumni – I’ve written copiously on it at two sites. It was something I personally came up against in faculty and what distressed me the most was the dishonesty.

    Fine having irrational leftwing views but to impose them on students, allowing no chance of counterpoint or debate, betrays the whole purpose of colleges and the free dissemination of information. With the rise of Common Core and World Core Curriculum, plus IB, the situation has almost reached the state of irrecoverable.

    And looking at the backgrounds of these three women, plus reading some of their work, all are deeply into the social justice warrior malaise. Suspicion was immediately aroused, alarm bells went off, when reading, above:

    I’ve encountered two types of people who are having trouble adapting to the field. First, there are those who bridle at the left-political conformity of English …

    Meaning political hijacking of language – I write on this topic primarily.

    … and who voice complaints familiar from the culture wars. But a second group suffers from a malaise without a name; socialization to the discipline has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss.

    Unaccountable? We of the sane can account for it quite easily, it is that which has been engendered by just such people as the three named in this comment. My disadvantage is that I cannot post the 13,000 or so posts and the various works I’ve written on this matter in one comment, nor can I quote Camille Paglia in depth, nor Christina Hoff-Sommers.

    There is nothing wrong with these three women associated with this article secreting themselves away in some room and debating all this – the only thing they must not do under any circumstances is drag starry-eyed students into it because then it becomes propaganda.

  • Kathy

    I think an important distinction is missing in this article, namely the the idea that this way of thinking is defined by the term “liberal.” While many people in academia use this terminology and call their thinking liberal, many other liberals are the antithesis of this way of thinking and quite despised by most academics. These are the liberals very concerned with a sense of self and a holistic view of life, especially those in the healing fields like alternative healing practices and yoga and those who work in the trenches of society, such as social workers. These people are despised by academics about as much as those colleagues that let their love of their partner and/or family members determine their career path. The use of the word “liberal” has to be qualified.

  • AC

    It’s really too bad that this great article is going to become a lightning rod for anti-feminist, anti-humanities critiques (see comments above). Ruddick is very careful to give due consideration to the scholarship she quotes. A suggestion: don’t critique literature departments unless you’ve done some thorough reading. Not all scholarship is like Halberstam. Post-structuralism warrants a critique, but doesn’t warrant the bogeyman of relativism it’s treated as.

  • Thomas B Dewey II

    So the poststructuralists are eating their young.

  • AM

    I think I’ve spotted the unreachable “Other” of this essay. It’s the professor’s own students whose concerns are dismissed without discussion in the very first paragraph.

  • Joe cavanaugh

    This is from Lisa Ruddick’s bio on the university of chicago’s website:

    “My current scholarship takes up similar questions in the context of academic life and its rigors and rigidities. I am writing a book on the ways in which professional training in the humanities, conducted with the best of intentions, can thwart the feeling of aliveness by partially dissociating practitioners from their intuitions and their deep affective resources. It is an interesting time for people entering the field of English because just now we are seeing a phase of widespread soul-searching within the discipline, from which new theoretical paradigms and new approaches to the life of the text are emerging.”.

    This is mumbo-jumbo. Ms. Ruddick, I was an English major and I can say with certainty that it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. The field of English Literature is so full of inaccessible and opaque academic jargon that I cannot believe it is legal to teach this stuff. I’m frankly surprised there hasn’t been some kind of rebellion. What business does an English teacher have folding psychology, sociology and feminism into the study of literature? This is not your job. The great books were meant to be appreciated on their own terms. English Literature was not designed to “liberate” and Critical Theory has no place in it. Look, let’s be clear here. English Lit is not nuclear medicine. No matter how hard one tries to dress it up with fancy words like “transgressive” and “metatextual”, the fact remains that English Lit is “emotion recollected in tranquility” and nothing more. For the love of God the nonsense within English departments has to stop before more lives are ruined.

  • Yonah

    “It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.”
    The language of the holy is flowing gently under the surface of this important and circumspect critique. While I think it is better served there–precisely under the surface–I want to add that this must be the direction for scholarship seeking a stronger remedying flow. Academia in general, and English in particular, have persisted long enough in an intense autoimmune disorder wherein they attack and nullify the idea of the holy, the soul, and the “still small voice”–a quote that comes not from Donald Carveth but from the story of Elijah in the Book of Kings. The still small voice is the voice of kindness and truth that persists despite all the storms of sociocultural and imperial force and their theoretical construct-ghosts. It is the voice that guides Bible study and the recitation of yogic texts, both of which are flourishing in this country, in heart-centered voluntary human groups. Unfortunately such reading largely fails to be infused with the reading of our experts, because our experts have apparently adopted a post-theological concept of the Elect while abandoning the notion of the faithful shepherd, the pastor, which of course was the purpose of “literary” hermeneutics when many of our universities were founded.
    Sadly, I could add many religious studies departments to this picture, though the story is a bit different there, and stippled with kind passion.
    The key is the point the author makes about getting stuck in reaction to those forces that were seemingly oppressive to us in the past; this is a form of sickness, and falseness, and hopelessness. There is no reason that soul-care, and praise, should be disassociated from careful cross-textual reading, and subtle inner psychodynamics. Just look at the work of Avivah Zornberg, for instance. But that might require actually returning to the bible, at least the Hebrew bible, and beginning to repent, yes, repent, for depriving this central self-vessel from generations of students trying to read well (and in some latter-day way, trying to be good).

  • Mackenzie

    You make some valid and compelling points, but I can’t help but think that this article falls into the very form of critique, the “thrill of destruction,” that it is trying to get out from under–with an attack on the posthumanist and a privileging of “stigmatized” humanism. This strikes me as an understanding that lacks its necessary roots in the history of the discipline: how do people think about the posthuman, what value does it purportedly have, and why do you find this and not, say, the tired privileging of all things transgressive that comes from a misreading of Foucault, to be the cause of the malaise you pinpoint? If this article is committed to protecting the most vulnerable people in the academy through a return to the human, then why is it that queer theory, black studies, and feminist theory tend to be the disciplines for whom the critique of the human is the most valuable? Black studies, for example, has investigated the ways in which the very idea of humanism was built around the exclusion of black people. Why choose trans theorist Jack Halberstam as a target of your takedown, misnaming and misgendering him along the way? It would seem to me that the return to the human, as it is conceived here, might assume a post-racial, post-gendered landscape in the academy where we can happily return from the battlefields of the culture wars to the cozy work of rebuilding the (implicitly male) individual.

  • Mark Notzon

    I have been toying with the idea of writing a satirical musical on departments of English called, well, “English Departments–The Musical”. A wittier title might be “Hi, Seriousness!” but then nowadays there may only be few who remember rhe original signature phrase from Matthew Arnold’s writings. The book and plot would follow two “unreconstructed” male professorial types, say from the hey day of New Criticism, who open with the number “Just the Text, Ma’am, Nothing But the Text” a parodic echo of the famous line from the Jack Webb police detective television series: “Just the facts ma’am nothin’ but the facts.” Along the way one of them sings a duet with a Marxist post-structuralist feminist who belts out in Ethel Merman style, Any -ism that you know, I know one better/ I have an -ism better than yours. No, you don’t/Yes,,I do/ No, you don’t Yes, I Dooooooo!” The great set piece would be a song and dance routine in Bob Fosse choreographic style–“Slidin’ Under the Signifier,” daringly but tastefully erotic appealing to all sexual persuasions. The show ends with our heroes, greatly altered, meeting at the fount of perpetual Transformational Grammar, where all and, of course, only all utterances spew forth showering the cast. For literature, now cleansed of all qualities, is anything that is written, anything that can be read, and for the academia anything that can increase enrollment and/or advance a career. Joined arm in arm with “language arts” specialists from schools of education they sing and dance in Rockettes-style the rousing finale number,“That’s Edu-tainment!”

    The comic relief might be therapeutic for the very real anomie budding literary scholars suffer from, as discussed in the article.. It might be even cheaper than a session with a psychoanalyst, whom they could invite along, for dinner and a show.

  • Alex

    My thanks to the author for amending the article. It was an interesting read.

  • Ruth Vanita

    A number of literary critics have been consistently publishing both books and articles in what may broadly be called humanist traditions. Most of these scholars, however excellent their work, do not get positions at major universities or become academic stars but they do manage to publish with reputable presses.

  • max

    the footnotes do not open in my browser

  • Roug'd Riderhood

    The article speaks of the profession as alienated from the mainstream of American life (mostly politically) and in need of bolstering its identity by imposing a party line. But this view is implausible. The profession has a much greater need for its discourse to be internally differentiated–so that it can sustain conversations between its members when no one else is interested or listening. It ill have a need for accounts that may assume orthodoxies but which build on them in certain ways, typically by making them congruent with previously unrepresented or disregarded experiences.

    It is also a mistake to equate, as Riddick does, a critique of psychic self-cohesion or some form of groundedness with a critique of the punitive introjection of gender or sexual norms as forms of identity. It is understandable that feminists and queer theorists will be against the latter. But their motivation may simply to make lives thinkable and livable again for those with identifications that have been reprehended or stigmatised in non-academic culture. There is thus no reason to think their constructonist theories of identity commit them to any form of modish scepticism about norms of psychic consistency or self-care.

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