A powerful Chronicle Of Higher Education essay from Eric Bennett, a college English professor, says that the humanities are dying, and humanities professors have killed them.
Bennett begins by talking about how influential literary studies were at midcentury. Then, after around the accursed year 1968, everything changed. Excerpts:
Beauty became ideology; poetry, a trick of power, no more essentially valuable than other such tricks — sitcoms, campaign slogans, magazine ads — and no less subject to critique. The focus of the discipline shifted toward the local, the little, the recent, and the demotic. “I find no contradiction in my writing about Henry James, bodybuilding, heavy metal, religion, and psychoanalytic theory,” Marcia Ian stated in PMLA in 1997. In Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres (1990), Harriet Hawkins argued that much pop culture “has in practice … been a great deal more democratic and far less elitist, even as it has often been demonstrably less sexist than the academically closeted critical tradition.” Within the bosky purlieus of a declining humanism, everything had become fair game for study: Madonna and Lost, Harry Potter and Mad Men.
The demographic exclusivity of the midcentury canon sanctified the insurrection. Who didn’t feel righteous tossing Hawthorne on the bonfire? So many dead white men became so much majestic smoke. But now, decades later, the flames have dwindled to coals that warm the fingers of fewer and fewer majors. The midcentury ideal — of literature as an aesthetically and philosophically complex activity, and of criticism as its engaged and admiring decoding — is gone. In its place stands the idea that our capacity to shape our protean selves is the capacity most worth exercising, the thing to be defended at all costs, and the good that a literary inclination best serves.
Democratizing the canon did not have to mean abdicating authority over it, but this was how it played out. In PMLA in 1997 Lily Phillips celebrated a new dispensation in which “the interpreter is not automatically placed above either producers of texts or participants in events but is acknowledged as another subject involved in a cultural practice, with just as much or as little agency.” This new dispensation — cultural studies — “emerged forcefully because the awareness of positionality, context, and difference is endemic to this historical period.”
Having eaten the tail of the canonical beast they rode on, scholars devoured their own coccyges. To profess the humanities was to clarify one’s situatedness, one’s limited but crucial perspective, one’s opinion and its contingent grounds. Yet if “opinion is always contingent,” Louis Menand asked laconically, “why should we subsidize professionals to produce it?”
By the 1990s, many scholars equated expertise with power and power with oppression and malicious advantage. The humane gesture was not to fight on behalf of the humanities — not to seek standing — but rather to demonstrate that literary studies no longer posed a threat. Unmaking itself as a discipline, it could subtract at least one instance of ideological violence from the nation and world.
If the political events of 2016 proved anything, it’s that our interventions have been toothless. The utopian clap in the cloistered air of the professional conference loses all thunder on a city street. Literature professors have affected America more by sleeping in its downtown hotels and eating in its fast-food restaurants than by telling one another where real prospects for freedom lay. Ten thousand political radicals, in town for the weekend, spend money no differently than ten thousand insurance agents.
Brutal. Mind you, Bennett is not a conservative; he identifies himself in this essay as “left-leaning”. More:
For going on 50 years, professors in the humanities have striven to play a political role in the American project. Almost without exception, this has involved attacking the establishment. As harmful as institutionalized power can be, as imperfect as even the most just foundations inevitably appear, they are, as it turns out, all we’ve got. Never has a citizen been so grateful for institutions — for functioning courts, for a professionalized FBI, for a factually painstaking CBO or GAO — as since November 2016.
Even the most devoted relativist cannot behold Fox News or Breitbart and not regard these media outlets as propagandistic in the most flagrant sense. Eisenhower would have balked. Promoting conspiracy theories, granting vile charisma a national platform, amplifying peccadillos into crimes and reducing crimes to peccadillos, they embody everything that literary studies was meant, once, to defend against — not through talking politics, but by exercising modes of expression slow enough to inoculate against such flimsy thinking. Yet the editorial logic of right-wing media resembles closely the default position of many recent books and dissertations in literary studies: The true story is always the oppositional story, the cry from outside. The righteous are those who sift the shadows of the monolith to undermine it in defense of some notion of freedom.
Turns out that when you cut down all the laws in England to get at the devil, so to speak, but then the devil turns on you, you have no place to hide. Really do read the whole thing.
Meanwhile, they’re digging in deep at DePauw.