Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Arrogance and Literature

Peter Berkowitz's article "Literature in Theory" has nothing new in it, though it is an interesting read.

I was struck, though, by this quote:
Progress will depend on faculty, many of whom have been educated, in Theory’s arrogant and angry terms, to “interrogate” texts, recovering
what David Bromwich, in “Literature and Theory: Notes on the Research Programs
of the 1980s,” calls “tact,” or the capacity to “show some feeling for the
language in which the work was written, for the period in which its author
wrote, and for the particular inflections that its style gave to the idiom it
inherited and revised.” [emphasis mine]

That word "arrogant" is interesting, especially when paired with Wayne Booth's second principle for pluralists:
I will try to publish nothing about any book or article until I have understood it, which is to say, until I have reason to think that I can
give an account of it that the author himself will recognize as just.

Last night on the telephone I was speaking with a colleague about how much he dreads teaching a particular poet he hates. He mentioned that he would have to pretend to like the poet, but I suggested that he let the students know that he doesn't like the poet. After musing about that for a bit, he said that the problem is that they will feel free to not like the poet, but that they have not yet earned the right to dislike him, because they haven't yet tried to understand him. In other words, he didn't want to feed an arrogance by which students think they can pass judgment on a work or poet they haven't really tried to understand.

Perhaps all professors are arrogant; I know I sure can be. Perhaps the most important thing we can take to a work of literature is not a theoretical approach, but an attitude of humility.


  1. I don't know whether I would term Theory as arrogant, but I do think I have found it to be antagonistic from time to time.

    Professors, because of their obligations/education/goals of their students, are in a position of authority. When this is combined with the natural desire of the student to "impress" the professor, it can lead to snap judgements like the one your colleague discussed with you. And I appreciate his sentiments, which may have been awkwardly phrased "they haven't earned the right," but is at its core correct.

    It isn't that students haven't earned the right to pre-emptively despise a poet/author, it is that they have no real basis for such judgements. At least, not until they have read the poet/author.

    This is where the role of the professor as interlocutor becomes so important. I can imagine a professor who states openly during a lecture, "I don't really like Emily Dickenson" before assigning a reading, but who also demands that the students not merely parrot back the professor's own aesthetic (though well refined) tastes. Rather, the professor is their to help students encounter texts fairly. That may mean antagonistically, that may mean sympathetically.

    My problem with Theory, especially Frankfurt school decended Critical Theory, is its underlying antagonism to "non-protected" groups. Why did I read Beloved instead of Song of Solomon for one of my classes? Did we also read Uncle Tom's Cabin which at least has parallel's to the narrative cause in Beloved? No. In fact, in this particular course we read only traditionally neglected narratives (and sometimes not the best ones by particular authors, in my opinion).

    I much prefered the course a professor of mine offered where he continually challenged us, "Is this a great book?"

    Or another Theory course I took where we encountered the texts first, and then the criticism.

    I have personally found the dominance of the Frankfurt School rejection of Classical Aesthetic Theory to be a disservice to modern "language arts" students. Many Theory courses are taught with the arrogance of the modern. By which I mean that the professor presents the information in such a way that students are led to believe that we have a better understanding of literary theory now than some "dead white male."

    This may be the case, but it is a disservice as an opening to discussion. I prefer your colleague's approach, and the one that you seem to exhibit in your writings.

    I constantly find your comments rewarding. Even though I have moved from the study of Literature (formally) to the study of Political Theory.

    You may think of your blog as a "personal journal," but your earnestness and broad comments keep in me a desire to maintain what little I have learned.

  2. Number One,

    Gosh, thanks for the praise.

  3. Anonymous2:51 PM

    Does Berkowitz's article open a path to argument from authority? (In that it suggests that only those who 'understand' properly should comment - Whose decides who understands? Should criticism not be assessed solely on merit?).

    This is, it seems to me, equally as arrogant as Derrida (not that arrogant)and his adherents (often REALLY arrogant)

    After all, Derrida did make interesting observations about the instability of meaning and such, and he had an undeniably arresting writing style which, rather than being needlessly opaque, was used in support of his point (about the problem of the instability of meaning).

    In any case, those opposed to deconstruction (or whatever else) should see it as a challenge - something to be argued against (and is, therefore, beneficial) rather than wished away, as Berkowitz's article seems to do.

    That the nasty deconstructionists might just mess with one's carefully wrought prose until it becomes gibberish (by making out that you actually said the 'instability of leaning' or whatever) is an obstacle to be surmounted (rather than whinged about!).

    P.S: Berkowitz's comments about Nietzsche are rather ironic in light of his expressed desire that critics should only comment on those matters in which they are competent - he seems to have mistaken Nietzsche some kind of nice guy?

  4. Brendan,

    I wouldn't take such an uncharitable view of Berkowitz's article, though I think your criticisms are certainly defensible. It seems to me that his citation of Wayne Booth undercuts the idea that "only those who 'understand' properly should comment," since Booth then defines understanding as "until I have reason to think that I can give an account of it that the author himself will recognize as just."

    I'm not a fan of Booth's Hippocratic Oath because I think it tends to obscure what it is supposed to be doing. My reading of these "five principles" is that there is but ONE principle: "I will only make good faith arguments." The five priniciples aren't so much principles as they are definitions of what it means to argue in good faith (e.g. I've read the text, have tried to come to an understanding of it, and am not simply parroting the opinions of others).

    When Berkowitz writes that "the problem is not literary study informed by theory but literary study overwhelmed by bad theory," I think bad theory means theory not performed in good faith. As anyone who has been in this business for a couple of years will acknowledge, A LOT of readings are done in bad faith, beginning in grad school with students who haven't read the text so instead write an opaque mishmash of Literary Cant to try to cover for that fact.

    So, should we privilege readings with authority? I think so -- after all, ethos is one of Aristotle's three appeals. Every time a controversial book or film is released, lots of letters to the editor appear that look like this: "I've not seen *The Passion of the Christ,* but I condemn such anti-Semetic hate speech, etc." I can't find much sympathy for the critiques of people who've not read (or seen) the work, and I have only slightly more sympathy for the critiques of those who approached the work in order to grind their axe upon it.

    Who decides who understands? I do, and you have the same right.

  5. Humility -- always a good decision.