Questions to Fuck Up Your English Professor, Take II (and III)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Ask and ye shall be misinterpreted.

[Thanks to Mr. Palmer this has turned into a full blown debate. Rather than endlessly repost, or let the comment section grow as long as a roll of toilet paper I thought I would simply insert the exchange here…]

I noticed a shitload of hits from Reddit, so I clicked and lo, found someone who had actually answered most of the questions! I’ve posted them below along with my responses.

GMP: AP Lit not Prof but I’ll give diffusing these a go:

13) Should we judge Literature by what it resembles or by what it accomplishes?

GMP: We should never judge literature (or anything) by what it resembles. We are not flatterers. If by “what it accomplishes” you mean what level of stimulation we (or society as a whole) get from the literature then yes, that is one criterion by which we should judge literature (i.e. whether or not it is “successful art”–an important question). We also, however, should judge art prima facie as well-done or poorly-done. Therefore you have a Cartesian plane of “artyness” (not to borrow from J. Everett Pritchard’s essay in Dead Poet’s Society) whereby you plot the influential/stimulative success of a work against its internal “artistic” success. If you want to get all three dimensional you can add “do I like it,” though this is so subjective as to be nearly a worthless question in art (and in our case literary) criticism–which is why we are here.

RSB: Largely agree. So the follow up question is then, Why has Literature become a genre, something easily recognized according to what it resembles?

GMP: “Literature” is, at its broadest, textually-based artwork (arguably encompassing visual-dramatic works as well). That’s like saying “why has painting become a genre.” Now, if you mean “Literary Fiction and Academic Poetry” (as I suppose you do) then the answer to that is that all “art groups” are, more or less, circlejerks. So you have someone like Pound helping to break the grip of the Georgians but instituting an even broader and deeper circlejerk that we have not yet, in some respects, pulled out of.

RSB: Let’s call this the Insularity Problem (IP) for ease of reference.

12) If we should judge Literature by what it accomplishes, who should the literary author write for? Audiences who already share their values and attitudes, or audiences who do not?

GMP: This question is a non-sequitur from the previous one. Who should the author write for? That’s the author’s question, isn’t it? Some authors write only for themselves but in doing so create great works. Some authors write only for the money but in doing so create great works. Some authors write for time, dead lovers, dreams, nightmares–an author can write for anything. An author should write for anything. An author should write for what inspires him (or her, of course–we mustn’t be un-PC). To address your “values” question it depends upon whether or not the author wishes to engage in demagoguery.

RSB: Quietism is the strongest response to this question I can think of as well. ‘Why ‘should’ the author anything?’ The question assumes, however, that challenging values is a signature Literary accomplishment. So insofar as the question, ‘What strategies are most likely to challenge values?’ has an answer, then so does this question.

GMP: To answer “what strategies are most likely to challenge values” is simple: a slight turning of traditional values. Trap someone in what you are saying and then do the big reveal.

RSB: And generally whose values are being challenged? More specifically, doesn’t this implication and reveal strategy turn on differences between the writer and the reader? So much literary fiction that I read seems to require what I call an Ideal Philistine to justify their distinction from good old fashioned apologetic fiction, people who would be troubled, were they to read the book, but never do because of its social identifications.

11) If conventions are nothing more than the expectations of real people, and if people generally prefer to have their expectations confirmed, then doesn’t ‘violating conventions’ amount to turning your back on real people?

GMP: It depends on why you do it (like nearly everything in art). First of all, an artist is under no obligation to give people what they “generally prefer.” Secondly, the very notion of “violating conventions” can be done–with skill and care, mind you–to create a sense of distortion (ultimately metaphor) in the reader–which is the only way a reader (or any of us) can absorb an idea. Take “next to of course god america i” by cummings. The theme of the poem is a subversion of patriotism and the form of the poem is a subversion of the Petrarchan sonnet (or at least our expectations of one). Here not only do we have form and theme informing each other but we have the entire thrust of the poem existing from the inversion of our “generally preferred” expectations. Having said that, subverting conventions for the sake of subverting conventions (and not for furthering your art) is puerile.

RSB: To the first, I entirely agree. The writer is under no obligation save, well, consistency with their own rhetoric. All the examples he gives of ‘violating conventions’ are examples of the problem I pointing out: as soon as ‘subversions’ actually cater to the expectations of your readers (as is generally the case with in-group artistic exercises) it becomes difficult to see how they count as subversive at all. The point of the question is to underscore just how tricky subversion is generally, and how it becomes impossible once we lose sight of real readers (typically behind so kind of formalism). I’m calling attention to the actual social dimensions of ‘rule breaking,’ and just how ‘pseudo’ it has become in literary fiction.

GMP: Well, as I’ve said, Literary Fiction is a circlejerk. As a genre it has telling features. This is why much of the best writing is done outside of or tangent to the genre (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, Creative Non-Fiction).

RSB: I identify, brother. I identify!

10) (If fundamentalism is raised as an object of ridicule). Which literary authors write for fundamentalist Christians? (If right-wingers or ‘rednecks’ are made an object of ridicule). Which literary authors write for rednecks?

GMP: Are we assuming these are supposed to come up in my comments? Or just in class in general? There are a whole class of “cowboy poets” who write “redneck friendly” material. In another vein some of the poems in Broetry are for “rednecks” of a certain set. One could argue many past writers have written for what we consider fundamentalists (certainly there are authors writing for fundamentalists of other religions and belief systems). More importantly is why do you think this question is important?

RSB: The examples given, although interesting, strike me as exceptions that prove the rule. The question is important for many, many reasons, not the least of which, is the prevailing climate of anti-intellectualism in popular culture, or worse yet, the staggering fact that a large majority of the population actually believes in the possibility of univocal interpretations of difficult texts (such as the Quran or Bible). To me, this constitutes a staggering educational failure – and a terrifying one – at least as detrimental as the repudiation of evolution. The difference is that the latter has the scientific establishment continually reaching out, whereas the former is grist for self-congratulatory asides at graduate parties.

The question is important because humanity is entering – as a matter of fact (just look at the links Jorge posted!) the shadow of the singularity, and we need to redirect as many critical voices as possible away from each other and toward the community that provides for them.

GMP: Our educational failure has to do with the inability of people to read and count–not the failure of academics and authors to write (unless you argue that academics are teaching teachers–which is a whole other ball of wax). People believe any sort of thing (how many scientists do you know who unequivocally believe in aliens, for instance? I know several–including a teacher who believed we were all “seeded by the Pleiades).

Well, learning to provide for ourselves without dependence upon “big brother” for lack of a better term will serve us better if there ever is a singularity (note: there won’t be) because we’ll be able to survive outside of a mechanical support structure. But having said that, it’s always important to criticize both within and without–to look critically at everything.

RSB: Our educational failure is full spectrum and horrifically complex – which is precisely why it has to be exposed and rectified one fragment at a time. The fact is, literary academics are nowhere near as publicly engaged as they need to be. Everyone I know in the humanities industry thinks the classroom is where they make the difference, illuminating one soul at a time. My argument is simply that this is precisely where they are losing the battle. They’re not teaching critical thinking (how can they when they know nothing about it, let alone human cognition?) so much as a new brand of piety, one that has had destructive cultural consequences. They hoover up far too much talent, convince it to go play in the corner with itself

The singularity is defined in many ways. For me it simply denotes the collapse of our ‘horizon of expectation,’ our ability to reliably predict ‘what happens next.’ But the accelerating pace of technological innovation is a fact. The way technology transforms social relationships is a fact. And the limited capacity for humans to embrace social transformation is a fact, as is the tendency for humans to embrace irrationalism when they feel threatened. We are the most socially and technically interdependent generation in the history of the human race: I’m not sure I see anywhere to hide.

9) Given that ‘groupishness’ is a universal human trait, and that groups invariably use their values to assert their social superiority, to police membership, and to secure their institutional privileges, which of your values do you think best serve these various roles?

RSB: None, apparently. I would like to think this is a telling omission [addendum: it was an omission], but who knows?

GMP: Though I find the question odd and vaguely inappropriate, if you mean values as in attributes I would say love and kindness first followed by experience, wisdom, and intelligence. If you mean things I value–probably still the same.

RSB: Curious. Are you saying we don’t use our values to socially discriminate? But we do, all the time in fact. You could argue that the institutionalization of practices would be impossible without self-serving valuation. Are you familiar with the psychology of value-attribution? It’s all bigotry all the way down.

Since you ARE the yardstick you use, you rarely if ever see yourself measuring, though it often seems painfully obvious in others (such as I likely do to you right now). You judge, you sort and select, dismiss and ignore, all day long, and according to patterns that identify you as belonging to a certain, self-regarding group.

8 ) What’s worse: the crap Hollywood produces, or convincing people who might change Hollywood to turn their back on it and only create for people who already share their attitudes and values?

GMP: Neither. What’s wrong with entertainment? Do you think Vergil pined his days away because folks when to plays? If you think “the crap Hollywood produces” is so terrible then go be a screenwriter and change that. Shakespeare wrote popular plays, you know.

RSB: As for Shakespeare, my point exactly! As for entertainment, I love it. But I’m also a stickler for consistency, and many, many literary writers like to talk about being more than ‘just’ an entertainer. My question is simply, How so? I also think that a good number of people live lives completely encapsulated in entertainment, where all the meanings seem stable, and where all their flattering values are endlessly reaffirmed – and here’s the thing, on both sides of the literary/non-literary divide. This is a problem isn’t it?

Check out this essay if you’re interested in the detailed version.

GMP: All artists aspire to be more than “just entertainers.” Most litfic types would do well to just make it to the entertainment stage. One wants to educate and to edify as well (some also want to punish and destroy). To the question of people living encapsulated lives: mindlessness is a human condition–it is magical when anyone rises above it.

RSB: Not magical. Just unlikely – for me as much as for you. It’s the aspiration you reference that’s my target: if this truly is the aspiration of literary educators and producers, then why is so much of their activity aimed at each other?

7) What percentage of scholarly papers would you say are more motivated by the need to secure in–group prestige and/or discharge bureaucratic requirements as opposed to a genuine love of the subject matter?

GMP: 100% of them. Is this surprising? That doesn’t mean they aren’t also motivated by a love of subject matter but Shakespeare’s gotta get paid, son.

RSB: Writing for money, exactly. Shakespeare is actually a bad analogy here, because he had to write for the larger community, rather than other in-group specialists. The follow-up question is whether this state of affairs is problematic in any way.

GMP: It’s problematic when you notice how generic most academic papers are. I think the best truly critical work is being done now on blogs and online magazines as it once was done in traditional print magazines.

RSB: Let me ask you: How often have you encountered wholesale institutional critiques such as my own, one’s that don’t simply express the (flattering) worry that literary culture is becoming a societal wheel that does not turn, but that rather contend it’s a wheel turning in the wrong direction altogether? If you have, then please give me references! If you haven’t, then what does that say about blindness of your institution?

6) Given that humans are hardwired to appreciate spectacle and convention (one need only look at myth), what are we to make of social groups that explicitly devalue spectacle and convention?

GMP: They’re trying to make a kite that won’t fly. If you kill kings you just get Cromwells.

RSB: I fully agree. Then why are the quotidian and the experimental prioritized by so many in contemporary literary circles? My suspicion: To keep the unwashed masses out.

GMP: Oh absolutely. Kerouac preached never editing a word but the On the Road MS is fully 1/3 longer than the published version AND he wrote “a million words” before he ever started OTR. Bull like that exists precisely to dupe folks into an inability to challenge the master.

RSB: Values. Power. Self-congratulatory identity claims. Now, I think all this stuff is inevitable. The problem for me lies in the tragic distance between these social facts and the aggrandizing emancipatory rhetoric you find in literary culture. Is anybody really out  to change anything? Not really, it seems to me. If they were, then reaching out would be their mantra, wouldn’t it? David Foster Wallace would have written End of Days fiction.

5) To the extent that you teach students what to take seriously, and what you take seriously tends to alienate consumers of popular culture, are you not teaching your students that turning their back on their cultural community is the only way for them to be taken seriously?

GMP: Why does what I take seriously have to tend to alienate consumers of popular culture? Moreover, taking something seriously and being taken seriously yourself are two vastly different things. Why do you feel the need to conflate our opinions of objects with the fact of our self?

RSB: This is simply the way cultural production works. To be taken seriously by a certain community you must produce things that resemble what they take seriously. What many English professors tend to take seriously, ‘difficult works,’ generally alienate consumers of popular fictions for the very reasons academia takes the seriously in the first place: they cut against those tastes that belong to baseline socialization and appeal to those possessing specialized training. Need I list examples? Given that this is generally the way in-groups self-identify (using patterns of cultural consumption to signal that they are also ‘in the know’) this starts to seem like it has precious little to do with art, and more to do with carving out a privileged self-identity (something which we cannot help but do). Again, it’s the rhetoric you generally encounter that makes this so embarrassing.

GMP: You’re certainly correct–but you can’t let that rule your reading (or teaching). But it’s just as important to understand shibboleths (really what we’re looking at here) and to be able to learn and use them to your advantage. Don’t bring up Harry Potter in a PhD party unless you’re either being derisive or ready to argue for hours. And certainly don’t bring up faith in Jesus or conservative politics or anything CRAZY like that. Everyone’s a bigot–just about different things (there are some rare exceptions).

RSB: No exceptions. ‘Stereotyping’ seems to be the very structure of cognition. This is why I go on so much about cartoons. Show me a concept and I’ll show you a caricature. It’s not that all representation is ‘violent,’ as the post-structuralist’s have it, it’s simply that it’s low resolution – horribly so.

4) Given (5), would you say you are part of the cultural solution or part of the cultural problem?

GMP: Thinking critically is always part of both. Critical thinkers simultaneously make for a kinder (more open to “the new”) and crueler (more critical, duh) society.

RSB: You assume that you’re a critical thinker. What if there’s no such thing, only moments of critical thought here and there (as mounting evidence seems to suggest)? And what if what you’re actually teaching your students is the precise opposite of critical thinking, namely, how to rationalize, or in other words, how to adduce arguments to support a conclusion they have already committed to?

 GMP: But they have to look at (and understand) the text before they can begin to draw conclusions about it. When I tell them a text “means” XYZ, I point out to them all the markers in the text that create that overwhelming meaning. I then teach them how to note those markers themselves and decide upon a meaning. Rationalizing, however, is also an important skill–sometimes you’ve just got to make up something convincing. True education gives students a chance to know how to use both (and why critical thinking is far more valuable in the long run [or for “important things”] than mere rationalization).

RSB: Rationalization is probably a far more important life-skill, and the ability to game ambiguities is crucial to it. Where does the ‘critical thinking’ come in? Analytic skills? The ability to empathize? For me critical thinking is a matter of engaging the problem solving circuitry of our brain in a disinterested manner (something which seems to only rarely happen, as you might expect, given the metabolic load it places on the brain). This is one of the reasons traditional humanities educations seems so bloody medieval to me: it poses itself as a solution to a problem that we are only now beginning to define.

3) What’s worse: selling out to strangers or writing exclusively to friends?

GMP: Neither–the author writes for what motivates him. Period.

RSB: If other people, or the greater community doesn’t motivate them, this means ‘friends,’ doesn’t it? But the question is normative, which makes the descriptive response here seem a bit disingenuous – unless the guy literally has no truck with evaluation at the social and historical level.

GMP: Yeah, I don’t give two craps about any notion of “selling out.” I take the long view of literature–what influence does it have on society, what influence will it have, and how will it be viewed in 100, 1,000, or 4,000 years? Whether you wrote for a paycheck or to impress a girl or because your friends thought you were funny is immaterial–what you wrote is primary.

RSB: I agree with this entirely.

2) What should society make of authors who continually write about people they are too embarrassed to write for?

GMP: Not sure what you mean–they write about a class of people their works are not addressed to? Don’t most folk do this? Think about a show like “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” These are rich people, yes? But is the show written for rich people? Hardly.

RSB: Actually, no. But even if this was the case, I’m not sure what the relevance would be, simply because it’s the status quo which is being critiqued here! The point of the question, again, is to get people thinking about audiences and the kinds of social dynamics that frame literary culture and production. So, the follow-up question would be, Why don’t literary authors write for the people they write generally about?

GMP: I think they do. Most current literary fiction I know of is about the Apple-Owning, sarcastic hipster set. Think about The Kite Runner. It’s not about people in Afghanistan. It’s about an Afghan immigrant with an English degree and his teacher wife almost trapped in an almost loveless and certainly childless marriage in trendy San Francisco–you can just imagine the narrator being the “hip-not-white” friend of every literary loser in town.

RSB: LOL! I liked that book (for the reasons you enumerate above: it prevented untold millions from committing what psychologists call outgroup homogeneity bias at a politically decisive time). I’m not sure I agree with your ‘most current literary fiction’ claim, but that could be a function of what I happen to be reading.

But in a sense, your (contrary) observation serves my underlying argument, the Insularity Problem. It could be regimented this way:

1)     Literary specialists regularly declare the need to change the greater culture.

2)     Literary specialists regularly direct their efforts away from the greater culture.

Meanwhile, the irony still stands. The Rabbit Tetrology is the most classic example I can think of. When my wife worked for Oxford University Press she brought home this anthology called Literature of the Working Class, filled with fiction about the working class and by authors who had bootstrapped themselves out of the working class, and not a single thing that anyone from the working class would be the least bit interested in – and much they would be alienated and insulted by.

There’s something troubling about this, and something that illustrates – if not explains – the violent anti-intellectualism you find, not in the corners (that’s where the literati live), but in the centre of the world.

1) Have you ever admired yourself wearing a scarf in a mirror?

GMP: Every winter’s day.

RSB: Brrr! He just had to bring up winter! For the months of September and October, it’s actually a non-felony criminal offense here in Canada…

GMP: Ha! Florida here. We spend nine months of the year pining for our precious taste of cold.

RSB: Then, gotcha! There is no winter in Florida!