The pretense of “diverse viewpoints” in the academic study of literature

Quillette, a website of classical liberalism that eschews (and criticizes) identity politics and authoritarian Leftism, seems to be doing well, and deserves your attention. The articles aren’t clickbait, but intellectual, yet are full of stuff to make you think. Here’s one from about three weeks ago on the intellectual uniformity of literary theory. The author, Neema Parvini, is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Surrey, a Shakespeare scholar, and author of five books, including Shakespeare and New Historicism Theory (2017) and Shakespeare’s Moral Compass (publishing this year), as well as presenter of a podcast called Shakespeare and Contemporary TheoryYou can read his stimulating essay by clicking on the screenshot:Parvini describes several authors who suffered demonization and even professional damage from scrutinizing left-wing thought, including Roger Scruton and especially Richard Levin, who criticized feminist treatments of Shakespeare because “they all seemed to reach similar conclusions.”

If you have any acquaintance with literary theory, gender studies, and the like, you’ll know that the disciplines are largely ideological, pushing one Leftist point of view and shutting out others. Question these viewpoints and you’re in trouble, either as student or professor.  Now this may simply reflect the hegemony of the Left in American universities, but it’s unwise to shut out alternative voices at a time when college students should be thinking for themselves and weighing conflicting ideas, not sopping up indoctrination by their professors.

Indeed, one of my friends, an English professor at a very famous university, retired early because he simply couldn’t stand the transformation of literature from an exercise in getting the most out of reading (and learning to appreciate books) into a discipline inculcating ideology and sucking the life out of literature. I thank Ceiling Cat that I went to college and studied literature when we were simply educated in how to navigate “difficult” books like Faulkner without having a veneer of ideology slapped onto our studies. If I hadn’t had that, I may have been forever put off reading literature.

What interests me most about Parvini’s essay is how beneath the supposedly diverse methods of literary analysis in universities lies, as he says, “a stifling uniformity.” Here’s how he puts it:

Many universities and colleges currently advertise literary theory courses which purport to introduce students to a range of different approaches to literary texts. On paper, it looks like as many as ten or fifteen different approaches. The labels proliferate: new historicism, cultural materialism, materialist feminism, ecofeminism, postcolonialism, deconstruction, structuralism, poststructuralism, race theory, gender theory, queer theory, postmodernism … the list might go on. This extensive list of labels seems to signal genuine range and diversity; however, in terms of their ideas, these approaches are somewhat narrower in scope and focus than one might expect. Virtually every approach listed here lays claim to be ‘radical’, which is to say politically of the left or even hard left – with roots in Marxist theory – hostile to capitalism, the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, liberal humanism, and even to the West itself. Virtually all are also committed to ‘social justice’. It must be noted that, since about 1980, these labels accurately register the genesis of literary studies as a discipline, but what they do not register is that, as they were rising, dissenting voices were systemically hounded out of the academy.

After describing some “dissenting voices” like Scruton and Levin, he shows the uniformity of literary schools like those in the second sentence above by making a list of their similarities:

Despite significant differences, all the approaches I listed above assume that:

  1. There is no universal human nature.
  2. Human beings are primarily a product of their time and place.
  3. Therefore, power, culture, ideologies, and the social institutions that promulgate them have an extraordinary capacity to shape and condition individuals.
  4. In Western societies, since these institutions have been dominated by people who were predominantly rich, straight, white, and male it has tended towards pushing the particular interests of rich straight white men to the detriment of all other groups.
  5. Furthermore, these rich straight white men have done this by acting as if their sectional interests were universal and natural – a flagrant lie.
  6. Importantly, however, few if any of these rich white straight men were consciously aware of doing this, because they were themselves caught in the matrices of power, culture, ideologies and so on.
  7. Where subordinated groups have gone along with these power structures, they have been exploited and the victims of ‘false consciousness’.
  8. Now is the time to redress this balance by exposing the ways in which old texts have promoted the sectional interests of the rich straight white men and by promoting the voices of the historically marginalised groups.

Parvini then makes a table showing that the similarities are the oppressor vs. oppressed narrative, with only the names of the parties changed among approaches:

He criticizes this hegemony because “it is not a scientific hypothesis that can be falsified or a philosophical argument that can be countered with other philosophical arguments”, but “more of a theological proposition.” That’s true, but seems besides the point, because this kind of analysis—or any form of literary analysis beyond testable statements about how a work was constructed (author’s intention, checkable facts, etc.)—can never enter the realm of empirical testability. Yes, you can point to instances in the real world of oppression, but what a book “means” is not in general a testable hypothesis.

All you can do, and what Parvini recommends, is to teach diverse and conflicting views and let the students sort it out for themselves. As he says, “universities are places to learn how to think not what to think.”

60 Comments

  1. Posted May 4, 2018 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “…universities are places to learn how to think not what to think.”

    It is becoming clear that today at most schools the sentiment is correct but the present tense is wrong.

  2. Dale Pickard
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    “All you can do, and what Parvini recommends, is to teach diverse and conflicting views and let the students sort it out for themselves.”

    I don’t know enough about this particular topic to proffer an opinion but this statement stood out to me as being exactly the same reasoning used to teach creationism alongside evolution in public schools – not right.

    The proposition seems reasonable enough, but I think that some “literature”, taken out of context can foist biased ideas on the otherwise naive or those seeking only to confirm existing bias.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Right. The quote here, “…universities are places to learn how to think not what to think.”, is too glib. In fact, both are true. Universities are a place to pick up information — absorb the current thinking on a particular subject. It is also a place where one should learn to think and that means hearing other ideas and learning to have your own ideas and opinions, possibly conflicting with accepted ones.

      • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        It doesn’t seem too glib in the contexts of the whole paragraph, and the area of study.

        In particular:

        “I always ensure that I stress to students that what they are studying is not Gospel, but rather ‘highly opinionated men and women making very contentious statements about the world’”

        In that context, learning how to think is more important than merely learning what to think (i.e. absorb the professor’s opinion as ‘gospel’).

        • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          Sure, but there is a natural conflict here. The professor will undoubtedly present their subject based on current accepted wisdom, with her own biases (hopefully identified as such) and, perhaps, a modicum of opposing opinions but, at the same time, encouraging the student to disagree, think outside the envelope, develop their own opinions, etc. The student who rebels against the current wisdom is not very likely to get a good grade as they will be seen as to not have completely absorbed the material. It would be a rare situation indeed if such a student got full marks. Seems to me that there always will be a debate and that’s a good thing.

    • Craw
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I think you missed the bit about testable hypotheses. There is a big difference between learning F = ma and approaches to reading The Mill On The Floss.

      • Posted May 5, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        Indeed there is a big difference, but even so, it’s dangerous to teach F = ma as if it were an indisputable truth, since, of course it turns out to be only an approximation.

        |Science has the advantage over literary criticism since the ideas of science can be compared with reality to see howe they fit. We can’t check theories about Othello because the author is dead and we can’t ask him. However, that doesn’t mean we should teach the currently accepted scientific wisdom as gospel.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Which is the argument that Creationists use because they think Creationism is science where it is really religion. Literature is not science either but unlike religion, it’s meant to be (or at least the greatest impact is to be had when it is) discussed and ideas argued and proofs made through pointing out what was written in the literature at different places, arguing what was happening within its historical context etc. There is no right and wrong but best supported through evidence. This is where journalists can make mistakes with science. For journalists, exposed to critical thinking by weighing facts and listening to discussions, they think all ideas are on the table and of equal merit. Science doesn’t work this way. There really are wrong and right ideas. This is how we ended up with debates on climate change and creationism. It’s just the wrong approach with science and it’s sad because the journalist has their heart in the right place but they use the wrong approach.

      I think this is now starting to improve with more science awareness made public after the whole climate change issue.

      • ploubere
        Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        As someone who teaches in a journalism school, I disagree with your criticism. Accurate journalism doesn’t report all claims as true, it reports that this person made a claim, and then reports whether there is support for the claim among experts in that field, or whether it comports with accepted knowledge. What you are describing is just bad reporting (which certainly happens, just as bad science happens).

        The biggest hurdle in trying to do science reporting is usually that scientists are often very bad at explaining their ideas to anybody outside their field, which would suggest that some of them might have benefited from more education in good literature.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 5, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          I agree about what you say about journalism but there are things that don’t need to be argued in claims alone because the science says that it is correct or wrong. This is where I have seen journalism fail. A scientist says evolution is true and this is why then a creationist says evolution is wrong and creationism is true and here is why. Those ideas are given equal footing time and again when they shouldn’t. Perhaps this is bad journalism but it’s he journalism I see practised over and over by otherwise very good journalists.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t see anything in the article arguing you should teach things that are demonstrably wrong.

      • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        But “wrong” is always in the eye of the beholder. I agree that creationism is wrong but don’t we have to allow that its an opinion with supporters? I guess it would be abhorrent to me if a biology professor was required to mention creationism as “opposing theory” in a class on evolution. On the other hand, perhaps we have to support that and just hold our noses. There’s something to be said for failure to mention it becoming an elephant in the room. Better to mention it in order to better counter it.

        • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          When you say things like ‘Wrong is in the eye of the beholder’, YOU sound like a Creationist.

          • Posted May 4, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            Not at all. I am just pointing out, like others here, that, as defenders of free speech and exposing students to alternative theories, don’t we have to do so in the case of creationism. Otherwise, we’re guilty of “free speech for ideas I support only” hypocrisy.

            • freiner
              Posted May 4, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              I think there’s a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, mentioning it (creationism)as an opposing or alternative theory of some scientific status, and on the other hand marking it as a belief that lies outside science altogether inasmuch as it admits of non-naturalistic explanation. Science education — whether in the classroom or in public forums at large — should convey that such explanations are “not even wrong” and why. To avoid that discussion may risk the free-speech-for-me-not-thee hypocrisy; to provide it, however, I think would exemplify the liberal-spirit of the sciences.

              • Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I thought of that also but, on balance, I think it would be an important opportunity to arm students with the reasons why creationism is “not even wrong”. In the US, it is likely that there are some students in biology class that lean toward creationism. It would be good for them to see that science isn’t afraid of creationism and isn’t trying to win the argument by ignoring it. Instead, science has good answers for their charges against evolution.

          • Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

            Foucault and Derrida are demonstrably wrong.

    • Dale Pickard
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      Interesting set of comments to my comment.
      I don’t see any reason why one cannot make testable hypotheses regarding bias in any given work of “literature”. It seems Parvini endorses critical thinking until it’s turned on his own biases.
      Reading his list of 8 things he assumes are part of the thinking of others I am reminded of what my Dad taught me. A hit dog always howls. I think Parvini is perhaps a little self conscious when his own bias is exposed.

      • Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Literary criticism done properly is about providing analysis with supporting evidence. While it has an element of subjectivity it tries to be as objective as possible.

        The bad kind of literary criticism we’re talking about here attempts to view works through a modern SJW lens. They rebut challenges to their thesis by claiming that the authors of such works were unconsciously channeling paternalism, male superiority, colonialism, etc. Hard to challenge such claims.

        • Dale Pickard
          Posted May 4, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

          I myself have often come to see white men as something of a historical scourge or virulent strain of humanity – and I am one…not rich by white men standards but well off by any common standard.

          • Posted May 4, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

            Ditto!

          • Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            Because all the non-white men and wymmynz did so much better throughout history.

            “Virulent strain” — try saying that about any other ethnic group.

            • Dale Pickard
              Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

              Well Matt, I think the data are the data. I think white, judeo/christian men deserver the distinction – just saying’ as they say.

              • Posted May 5, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                ‘just sayin” and appeals to (not produced) data are somewhat contradictory.

              • Dale Pickard
                Posted May 5, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                The data lies in the competitive histories of these “strains” as seen from the petri-dish perspective.

        • Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          Well, one can categorically reject such claims as unfalsifiable and tautological.

    • Posted May 5, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      The reason why creationism is not taught alongside evolution is that it is thoroughly discredited. Yes, if there are alternative theories they should taught, but only they are not definitely wrong.

  3. Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Susan Haack made the same point about philosophy departments. Hiring a woman, a disabled person, a homosexual, etc. doesn’t (by itself) get you diversity of viewpoint, especially if they are all (I think she says) students of Donald Davidson.

  4. Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Also, I think each viewpoint has a few correct core bits, but a massive exaggeration of its importance.

    Also, “oppressor” can be generalized to “critics” in that exaggeration, which creates problems. (This is what happens in pomo “science studies”.)

  5. darrelle
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    All of the types of literary analyses listed here should not be in the literature department at all. They should be in the sociology department. The goal of all of these is to study real social systems by observing how those systems influenced the story telling of authors. Or rather, like pseudoscience, to find confirmation in literature of ideas about real social systems that the proponents are already sure of.

    In my opinion literary analysis in a literature department should be about figuring out the authors’ intended meaning, how authors intended their works to be interpreted and studying the art of the writing. That will by necessity entail learning something of the society the authors are a product of, but studying that society isn’t the primary point of literature studies. Merely in my opinion of course.

    • fjordaniv
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      These types of analysis have their roots in structuralism and post-structuralism, which date back the to the 1950s. The theories discussed in the article began to hit the mainstream in the 1960s-70s; most were entrenched in PhD programs by the 1990s.

      Some have a degree of utility, as they added new approaches and interpretations to the discussion of literature. Unfortunately, the application of such theories often leads to polemicist pedagogy and shoddy scholarship, as any pretext of looking through an aesthetic lens is abandoned, and such approaches are often seen as reinforcing dominant ideals of what literature is.

      It’s a recipe that’s almost certain to surgically extract the love of literature from students.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 5, 2018 at 1:52 am | Permalink

      I absolutely agree. In my view, literary studies should be about how well the book is written, how successful is the characterisation, how credible the plot, how inventive the command of language, and (IMO) how enjoyable the book is to read, (though my cynical streak suspected that was counted as a negative attribute in English Literature when I was at school). And a book’s literary worth should be judged on those attributes whether it’s War and Peace, Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, the Bible, Tom Sawyer, Naked Came the Stranger or Harry Potter.

      cr

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    An obvious problem with this approach to literature comes up when you realize how many contributors to the classical Western canon are closeted gays (Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather), and there are even a few women who published under male pseudonyms (George Eliot and the Bronte sisters), as well as many Western authors who were secretly more radical than their published writings would obviously indicate (William Wordsworth).

    These folks are always secretly subversive while publicly posing as more mainstream.
    But if you read them as Western establishment authors using these critical paradigms, you will misunderstand them.

  7. Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  8. TJR
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I could agree with a lot of propositions 1-8, as long as you modify them a bit.

    1-3: Reword to make the statements less absolute, e.g. replace “primarily” with “substantially”.

    4-8: Reword to remove the west-centrism, and in particular replace “straight white men” with “ruling classes”.

    • Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      However one words it, demand #8 is not about creating balance, but rather aimed at turning the tables of domination.

  9. Christopher
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I remember hearing a professor, of history, as I recall, complain about the persistence of Marxist ideology in the humanities dept. At the time, pre-2008, I didn’t take him seriously at all. I thought he was a silly old man still stuck in the Cold War. I am shocked at how wrong I was! Embarrassingly wrong! I was oblivious to the tide turning against liberalism and the enlightenment.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Certainly uninformed anti-capitalism and anti-globalization is rampant among people on the street. I see it on Facebook among my own acquaintances quite often. I don’t think they are in favor of Marx per se but their proposed solutions to economic problems are Marxian.

      • Hemidactylus
        Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        Oh there’s plenty of capitalism worship among those settling in the classically liberal antipodes of Galt’s Gulch. Why do I sense a creeping embrace of libertarianism amongst the disaffected strand of atheism? Reaction to a perceived threat of regressive leftism?

        For all the excess of cultural Marxism we should fear destroying academia, where is the criticism of the rise and odd popularity of neo-Jungian celebrity Jordan Peterson? Why are atheists so quick to embrace this guy? Amy Peikoff did a multi podcast discussion of his book. Ayn Rand wept.

        • Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          Peterson makes a hell of a lot of sense on many issues, is why.

          Instead of assuming Peterson is an objectivist just because some objectivist liked his book, why not find out what Peterson actually had to say about Rand?

          FTR, Peterson was active in the NPD in his youth, and sees himself today most closely aligned with the Liberal Party.

          Economic Libertarian/Anarchists have always tended to be atheist. True liberals have come to realize that, as civil liberty libertarians, they have nothing in common with authoritarian leftists.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Marx, Freud and Saussure are still taught in Literature as if they are the cutting edge of economics, psychology and linguistics. You won’t find any modern economics, nothing about neuroscience or cognitive psychology, not even a reference to the linguistic theories of Chomsky (who they know of purely for his politics).

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    During the pleistocene epoch (also known as the 1950s), a small number of CP party members were hounded out of academic jobs in the USA. The argument for ejecting them was that they would use their academic positions in order to propagandize the captive audience of their students, and to help other CPers further infiltrate the academy. A few center-Left academicians, like the Marx scholar Sidney Hook at NYU, affirmed that propagandizing and manipulation was precisely what serious devotees of Marxism-Leninism could be expected to do at every opportunity. But most Liberals—individuals like myself and probably most readers of this website—said no, no, no they wouldn’t do anything like that—and opposed academic “McCarthyism”.

    Hmmmm. Starting in the 1980s, we have been treated to an entire cohort of academics who behave precisely the way Sidney Hook predicted CP members would, and moreover they do so perfectly overtly. The differences are only: (a) they don’t belong to a single, identifiable party; and (b) the intellectual basis is not the serious, relatively coherent one of Marxism, but rather a mishmash of post-modernisms with an icing of Marxist headlines. And they invent laughably bogus academic subjects to boot.
    Is there reason for thought here?

    If the process ever reaches the point of bogus “science” subjects—perhaps “Critical Gender Theory Astronomy”, or “Social Justice Theory Biology”—then it may stop being funny. There have been times, in a place across the sea, where teaching or research regarding genes and chromosomes was severely limited, and even risked criminal penalties up to execution. This dispensation followed from what the authorities in that place claimed was a matter of “social justice”.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I just googled “Critical Gender Theory Astronomy” w/o quotes and got no hits. I must admit I am surprised. Let’s never mention it again.

      • Christopher
        Posted May 4, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Didn’t PCC post something awhile back on a paper about some sort ofgender nonsense and geology, or glaciers?

        • Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Yes. I remember that. It is so easy to poke fun at that kind of thing. I am sometimes amazed at what crap some people believe.

    • John Nunes
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      Germaine:

      http://www.stephenhicks.org/2017/06/24/newtons-principia-as-a-rape-manual/

      • Christopher
        Posted May 4, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

        Oy what a load! I’d forgotten about that! Damn, people are dumb as hell.

    • Posted May 5, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Boyle’s Law is misogynist, donchaknow.

  11. revelator60
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps some universities will begin dividing their English (and Comparative Literature) department classes into two categories— “Literature Appreciation,” for those who want to read and learn about great books, and “Literature Assassination,” for those who want to debunk great authors and vilify their books as another form of oppression.

    This would satisfy people who enjoy reading and people who enjoy bleating.

  12. Robert Bray
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    ‘what a book “means” is not in general a testable hypothesis.’

    I understand the need for scare quotes around ‘means’ but it’s too bad we have to use them (as if literary meaning isn’t real). There used to prevail in the study of literature a distinction between INTERPRETATION and CRITICISM. The former was devoted to the analytic recovery of meaning from a text, and was based on scrutiny of its form and manner. ‘Criticism’ was secondary and sought to comment comprehensively on the ethical universe of the poem, drama or novel, focusing on its points of congruence with the actual fields of social and personal humanity.

    While nothing like a consensus existed, I think most professors of literature–and this was certainly true at the U of C where I did graduate study–saw ‘interpretation’ as a necessary condition for ‘criticism;’ and where interpretation failed, criticism could not succeed, at least in ways that would satisfy a community of readers.

    That’s what literary study was: how to read, so as to get the best harvest of meaning (significance, if you prefer) and emotional power from the works under examination, and then to begin to articulate in conversation and prose the multi-faceted dialogue between text and world as intermediated by the well-trained reader.

    In this very limited way, then, literary analysis IS like ‘science broadly construed.’ Testable hypotheses? Yes, in the sense that the discipline has a ‘without which nothing,’ and that ‘whichness’ can be established. As long as language(s) are written into literature(s), this will remain the case, and future readers will be able to read with profit the same art writing we have loved, as we would recognize through reading theirs.

    I think the sickness in the humanities today is a kind of ‘legionaries’ disease’ imported from the vapidities of sociology/cultural anthropology. And that far too many students and professors of literature just do not like the affective usurpation of self that beautiful art demands.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      ‘legionnaires” !!!!!!

  13. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Much of the literature assassination really does belong (if it belongs anywhere) in a department of Sociology rather than one of Literature. Long ago, a friend of mine who was an Assistant Prof. of English dropped out of the academic life precisely because of the prevalence of literature assassination in his own department.

    The current pattern is truly bizarre. It is as if music departments had programs for tone-deaf “scholars” to work at vilifying Beethoven for ideological offenses; or as if Botany departments had been taken over by individuals who are allergic to plants. The pattern’s invariable connection with leftwing slogans, claims about social justice, and postmodern jargon deserves investigation—from a psychiatric perspective.

  14. Hemidactylus
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been studying the history of ideology which itself goes through Bacon, Destutt de Tracy, Hegel, Marx, Frankfurt School, structuralism, postmodernism etc. it’s a confusing tangle. Pomo may have some interesting criticisms of power, ideology, and scientistic excess, but at the end of the day devolves into a messy Buridan’s ass problem, where epistemic and moral relativism leave one mired with no justifiable means to evaluate alternatives if one dismisses the Enlightenment “metanarrative” ironically with an all encompassing ideology of ones own. This approach at some point becomes self-refuting. Pomo is a narrative that is itself about usurping and keeping power. But the Enlightenment is not sacred and above reproach.

    I am reading Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. It has its good points, but there’s something a bit odd about two exiles from Germany critically analyzing the “culture industry” and rise of fascism through Homer, de Sade, and Daffy Duck cartoons. They didn’t seem too keen on Hollywood or Madison Avenue schtick. There is much merit to their critique of ads and PR. I think at some point I was drawn to the conclusion that movie teasers are no better than what carnival barkers do in manipulation via promise that falls flat. Ads and PR are about conveying a persuasive image over truth. Add the rebirth of fundamentalism, rise of the alt right, and pomo excess and we now have the era of post-truth. Welcome.

    Commodification as criticized by Adorno and Horkheimer though has had a nasty outcome. The Great Pacific garbage patch and global warming speak to that. And our overarching social disease of “affluenza” could turn many of us into hoarders. There is a book and documentary about affluenza. What counts as media now has gone far beyond what Chomky criticized in Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions with the rise of the web. Information flow is more devolved and democratic but is this a good thing? Sure Jerry has this edifying blog, but there is also Infowars. As if nobody could see it coming after Zuck’s student sojourn at Harvard, Facebook is a privacy destroying ad-slinging behemoth that shows the adage that we have become the product. And going back to Frankfurt School critique, how much of of our personal identity is a creation of media? Are we much different from characters in a TV show given the subtle hooks of media?

  15. Posted May 5, 2018 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Given the current state of literary criticism you have to wonder if some great authors are slipping through the cracks. IMHO Mary McCarthy is a good example. She was admired in the 50’s and 60’s, but seems on the way to being forgotten today. Why? Her novels are fantastic documents of the time(s) she lived in. For example, one thing you learn from them is that the “sexual revolution” was in full swing long before the 60’s. Her “theory of mind” is beyond anything I’ve found in any other author. In reading “The Halls of Academe,” for example, I wonder whether analysis of what’s going on in the minds of others at that level is a gender thing, and something that men just never approach. My admiration for her work isn’t ideological, because she was a hard core leftist, and I’m not, albeit she was an atheist like me. Perhaps she’s being ignored because she was too ingenuous about the pervasiveness of Communism among leftists in the 30’s and 40’s. She was certainly promiscuous, but I doubt it has anything to do with sex. Maybe she just wasn’t concerned enough to put over an ideological “message” to please today’s critics. Who knows?

    • Posted May 5, 2018 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      Should be “The Groves of Academe.” Other good reads are “The Group” and “A Charmed Life.”

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted May 5, 2018 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        Hello Helian. Some years ago, I thought I had uncovered a general law about academic behavior. It was that the Left intensity (or leftensity, as specialists term it) of a professor’s verbiage varies directly with the square of his/her academic fraudulence. I
        called this generalization Churchill’s Law, after professor Ward Churchill of U. Col. I
        later realized that Mary McCarthy had scooped my discovery of Churchill’s Law long before, in a way, in the brilliant “Groves of Academe” of 1952.

        • Posted May 5, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          In her memoirs she said she read “Ulysses” about a dozen times to page 48, and put it down, wondering what people saw in Joyce. The next time, she “got it,” and read the book through to the end. I’m afraid I’ll never “get it.” I’m not determined enough to read to page 48 that many times.

    • revelator60
      Posted May 5, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Mary McCarthy is now being talked about and rediscovered, thanks to the recent Library of America publication of her novels (https://www.loa.org/books/541-the-complete-fiction-boxed-set). If you search for her name in google news you’ll find lots of recent stories and reviews about her.

      • Posted May 5, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        I hope she’s rediscovered the way Stendhal was in the late 19th century. A fascinating author.

  16. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted May 6, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I find it ironic that a call for ideological diversity can come from Quillette, one of the most suffocatingly uniform websites on earth. Its entire output seems to be articles about the dangers of identity politics and extreme political correctness(all well and good), but not a whisper about Donald Trump or the recrudescence of the hard/far-right in western politics. There’s something enormously smug and disingenuous about its approach, particularly since it styles itself as a genuinely liberal website.

    At this point it operates as a more sophisticated form of those YouTube channels which specialise in showing ‘SJWs getting OWNED by Jordan Peterson/Ben Shapiro/Milo Yiannopoulos’. It’s an echo chamber. Even somewhere as frequently vacuous as The Daily Beast at least occasionally has contrasting opinions on the big political topics. But Quillette operates on the same ‘we’re not biased’ principle that Templeton operate on, which is that they don’t force anyone to take an editorial line, but they just don’t hire anyone who ever disagrees with it. More importantly they don’t seem to hire anyone who ever writes about anything else.


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