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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.