Tom Samet: In Beyond the Culture Wars you refer to your childhood as a “middle-class Jew in Chicago”—to a home that was evidently literate but not bookish or self-consciously intellectual. Can you tell us more about your background?
Gerald Graff: Actually, it was more bookish than I indicated in that account—my father was a great reader and an intellectual, though I don’t know if he’d have called himself one. But those were the days (the forties and fifties) when middle-class kids were starting to take their behavioral cues from other kids rather than from their parents, teachers, or other authorities. It’s all developed in Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd and other pop sociology texts of the period—how the “peer group” or youth culture (largely a creation of advertising and consumerism) displaced the traditional authorities and produced an “other directed” character type who wanted to be popular and like the other kids rather than like Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, and the other official role models. Of course these things are always more complicated than a pat summary like this one can suggest. Though I depicted myself in the account you mention as a pretty thoroughgoing anti-intellectual, the truth is I was a closet egghead, half proud of being smart but half ashamed of it too, depending on the company I was with.
Tom: Given your early indifference to books—an indifference that appears to have persisted through your college years—what drew you to the University of Chicago?
Gerald: The fact that some of my friends went there (see last answer on being an other-directed personality). But there was also a kind of unspoken understanding that when you went to college (and it was somehow understood that I would) you would get serious and quit fooling around, as you had in high school. Because of the postwar boom economy in those days, middle-class kids could treat high school as a pleasant oasis from all serious responsibility or thoughts about the future and suffer no bad consequences for doing so. This seems very different from the situation today. Having spent my first year at a two-year college (the University of Illinois at Chicago, then at Navy Pier), I would have to transfer eventually to some four-year college and the U of C across town seemed convenient. It was in a post-Hutchins low period when it was having trouble attracting students because of the bad neighborhood, so it was easy to get into. Beyond these considerations, I knew Chicago’s reputation for being intensely highbrow, but what that meant exactly or how it would affect me was pretty vague.
Tom: As you reflect now upon your Chicago experience, can you characterize its effects? Was Chicago crucially formative for you? Do you think of those years as having shaped your critical practices or commitments?
Gerald: Undergrads at the University of Chicago weren’t let in on the secret that the Chicago School of critics were in huge battles with New Critics, historians, and other schools. I had a vague sense these battles were going on and that some of my teachers represented a “school,” but it wasn’t till I went to Stanford and studied with Yvor Winters (who’d been in one of the battles with R. S. Crane) that I began to find out what the Chicagoans were all about, at which point I retrospectively recognized a lot of their principles in the teaching I’d got in literature courses. Many years later I began to feel that the central conflicts I’d needed in order to make sense of my studies had been hidden from me—the germ of the thesis of Professing Literature and my “teach the conflicts” pedagogy. Then, too, in its pedagogy Chicago’s College back then (as still today) operated on an extreme version of the theory that students should encounter the great text itself, encumbered as little as possible by history, culture, criticism, or any other contextualizing material, which was seen as contaminating the experience. In the famous book-list exams they gave back then, we read even Blake and Yeats cold, uninformed that much of their poetry depended on knowing their private mythologies. I wasn’t supposed to know this, lest my immediate experience of the poems be compromised, so I was of course mystified by them and could only concoct wildly silly interpretations on the exam. The whole experience led me to conclude that the “text itself” theory was dotty and self-destructive, which I guess you could say was a “critically formative” idea for which I have Chicago to thank.
Tom: When did you decide to pursue doctoral study in literature and what accounts for that decision?
Gerald: It was becoming clear that (a) I wasn’t going to become a pro baseball or basketball player or sportswriter or announcer (the only meaningful vocations), and that (b) reading literary texts and talking about them was something I was pretty good at. I had no clear idea of what “doctoral study in literature,” or anything else meant—it was assumed that somehow a smart person just knew—but I at least knew it had something to do with the kind of reading and “explicating” I could do. So in the fall of 1958 I applied to a number of doctoral programs; by spring I’d been rejected by all of them—or refused financial support, I can’t recall, but in any case I’d given up on grad school. In late spring of 1959, however, Congress approved the National Defense Education Act, and I got a letter from Stanford (which had previously turned me down) offering me a terrific four-year package if I did my Ph.D. work in English and American literature—the study of American literature being judged to be in the national defense. I happily accepted, not pausing to puzzle over why Congress held this curious belief. The romantic words “Stanford” and “California” were enough to attract me, quite apart from whatever the doctoral study of literature would turn out to involve, which in any case I would find out in due course. This, so far as I can reconstruct it, was my mindset at the time.
Tom: Your first book, Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma, offered a powerful challenge to the anti-propositional tendencies of Anglo-American formalism, especially in its “New Critical” variant. How much of the argument of that book do you attribute to the influence of Yvor Winters, and can you tell us anything else about formative figures or ideas?
Gerald: I’m impressed that you were able to slog through the turgid prose of that first book and even find its argument powerful. I would never have thought the thoughts in it if it had not been for Winters. I first came on his name after getting the invitation from Stanford, looking up who was on the English faculty, and finding Winters mentioned as the most prominent figure. He was always described as “controversial,” which made him intriguing, so when I got to Palo Alto I dropped in on him to ask about taking his course in the lyric poem. I’ve written about this intimidating meeting in an essay on Winters that appeared in The American Scholar and later in a collection of essays on great teachers: “Winters: Have you ever taken a course in poetry? Graff (affecting a cocky tone): Yes, I took Elder Olson’s course at the University of Chicago. Winters: Mr. Graff, I teach my course according to certain fixed critical rules. And Elder Olson’s rules are not my rules.” Wow—I was hooked.
Tom: So what were Winters’ “rules”?
Gerald: I think he must have had in mind his famous “fallacy of imitative form” (critics were big on propounding “fallacies” and “heresies” in those heady days), the idea that poetry had to become formless in order to imitate a formless modern reality. Elder Olson had recently published a book praising Dylan Thomas that Winters thought was uncritically guided by this fallacy.
Tom: Can you tell us more about Winters’ influence on your thinking, and do you regard him as in any way a continuing presence in your work?
Gerald: I think he was a model for me of the kind of engaged intellectual that otherwise I might not have known was a possible role for a professor. And his embattled stance no doubt appealed to me as a kid who had grown up on sports and was looking for a way to rechannel those competitive energies into the intellectual domain.
Tom: Beyond that, can you comment on Winters’ place in modern criticism? My own impression is that he is no longer much regarded, that he has come to be viewed as a rather cranky, eccentric, and marginal figure. Is that an accurate perception, and does it fairly reflect the intrinsic importance of Winters’ work; or does it tell us something about our current cultural and critical climate?
Gerald: There are still a lot of Winters fans out there, including poets whom he taught and influenced like Tom Gunn, Robert Pinsky, and (I think) Robert Hass, younger poet/critics like Alan Shapiro and Mary Kinzie, and there is still something of a Winters’ cult around Stanford. Winters’ own poetry is amazingly interesting and powerful—take a look sometime at the Collected Poems. He certainly was cranky and eccentric, but this is not exactly an unusual trait for his generation. If he’s “marginal,” this may be mainly because he avoided mainstream publishers and coteries.
Tom: As I try to trace the trajectory of your work, it seems to me that your first two books might be described as “textual” in the sense that they consider the premises, principles, and practices that guide our interpretation of literary artifacts. With the publication of Professing Literature in 1987, your interests turn toward the institutional sites and structures within which the project of interpretation is carried out. Is this, in your view, a fair and accurate assessment? What accounts for the shift in focus or emphasis that I’ve described?
Gerald: I guess I wouldn’t say that my first two books really are very “textual.” They contain little or no close reading of the sort that was the staple of literary criticism then and still is for most (despite the complaints that talk about texts has been replaced by talk about theory, ideology and power). I would say I moved from issues in literary theory in the first two books to how literary study was institutionalized in Professing Literature and to the practice of teaching in Beyond the Culture Wars, but I’ve never been a textual close reader. Though, as I’ve described above, it was my facility with close reading that first led me to think of going for a doctorate in English, I decided at some point that enough close readings were being published that the production of them wouldn’t be seriously hurt if I did something else.
I have gotten less exclusively literary in my interests and more sociological and institutional, but literature and writing are still the only fields I can write with confidence about when discussing teaching and research. Insofar as I’ve moved away from literature “itself,” and insofar as this move has had any principle behind it, I’ve been motivated, I think, by the belief that the teaching of literature has been harmed by the isolation of literature in separate departments and courses—not because “literature” as a category isn’t meaningful, but because when you separate literature from philosophy, history, sociology, religion, and other subjects you make it harder for students to make sense of it.
Winters’ work was important to me here—I began to feel that my own understanding of literature—even my skill at close reading of texts—progressed once I was able to read literature historically and socially. I also began to feel that the problems my students had with literary texts came from their lack of historical and cultural contexts. When my colleagues would complain that their students seemed not to be able to “just read the texts,” I would ask them how they expected that to happen when the texts had been stripped of their history and other contexts for those students in the isolated way the texts were encountered. But it’s one thing to complain that the departmentalization of literature prevents students from reading historically and culturally, and quite another to rearrange things so that they can do it better. I’ve never had a lot of luck teaching kids how to historicize, though I’m still working on it.
Tom: Both Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma and Literature Against Itself suggest that, in renouncing its representational and propositional claims, literature accepts a kind of enfeebled or marginal status—surrenders its cultural cogency and power. The latter book, moreover, seeks to expose the ways in which an avowedly adversarial literature may in fact collaborate with the very pathologies of the capitalist marketplace that it appears to repudiate or to challenge. Have I got this right?
Gerald: Very much so. I think my attack on “antipropositional” attitudes has been a motivating undercurrent in everything I’ve written. Our culture has a major hang-up about making claims, and this hang-up is especially deep in academic culture, where it is indeed risky to make a claim since somebody might disagree with you. In the book I’ve just finished, Clueless in Academe, I discuss how this ambivalence about making claims, a kind of anti-intellectualism ultimately, contributes to making academic intellectual culture obscure and confusing to students and other nonacademics, who have trouble following us in our contortions.
Tom: You write, for example, that “the real ‘avant-garde’ is advanced capitalism, with its built-in need to destroy all vestiges of tradition, all orthodox ideologies, all continuous and stable forms of reality in order to stimulate higher levels of consumption.” The language here of course echoes Marx in a famous passage of the Manifesto: “…all fixed, fast-frozen relations … are swept away….All that is solid melts into air. …” This suggests that the solvent of “continuous and stable forms of reality” may not be “advanced” capitalism, but capitalism as such; which leads me to ask whether in your account of things adversarial modernism was a kind of false path from the outset; or whether you mean only to suggest that a once powerfully critical impulse has now been overtaken by events.
Gerald: I think I was a bit glib on this theme of the way avant-garde subversion had been easily “co-opted” by commercial culture. If this is true, what follows? What are we supposed to do? I have a later essay called “Co-Optation” (in H. Veeser, ed., The New Historicism) that raises questions about this co-optation argument, which was already becoming popular on the cultural left when Literature Against Itself came out and became even more popular under Foucault’s influence. By the way, Ivan Dee Books of Chicago has reprinted Literature Against Itself with a new preface in which I try to sort out the things I still hold to in that book and the things that I’ve changed my mind about.
Tom: I take it to be fairly clear that you offered the arguments of Literature Against Itself as a man of the left, believing that any serious resistance to what you call “advanced capitalism” and “consumer society” calls for strategies quite different from those of avant-garde culture. Do you think that this has been understood, or have you found yourself represented as a kind of reactionary?
Gerald: I did get identified with the Right by some people who still probably think of me as a neoconservative, but most of that reputation probably dissolved when I became a defender of multiculturalism, theory, etc., during the culture wars and helped form Teachers for a Democratic Culture, an organization of academics devoted to fighting conservative distortions of recent changes in the university. I’ve been attacked a lot by conservatives who are unaware of my earlier work and don’t know that the criticisms of relativism that they level at me are the same ones I once made against others. But on the far left I’m regarded by some as a pseudo-leftist. It’s all very confusing, I’m afraid.
Tom: Several other books, roughly contemporaneous with Literature Against Itself, raise similar issues and arguments. I have in mind, for example, Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). Have you thought at all about the relation between your book and these? Do you have any sense of why their shared preoccupations—supposing, of course, that I am right in thinking that they have something in common—have you a sense of why those preoccupations emerge with such prominence in the late seventies and early eighties?
Gerald: Kit Lasch and I became good friends at Northwestern, where we were together on the faculty from 1966-69 and cronies during the days of campus protest, where we bonded in a somewhat conspiratorial way (I felt) against the stupidities of the right and the left but still very much identified with the protest movement. I reviewed Berman’s book pretty favorably for the Atlantic (I think). There is certainly a lot of affinity between these books and my work—again, my “Co-optation” essay reflects on the general argument and the conceptual dead end to which it tends to lead: OK, so we’re all co-opted by consumer capitalism; now what?
The speed with which the imagery of 1960s revolutionism and counter-culturalism was taken over by advertisers, product designers, and theme restaurants was certainly shocking. In the sixties SDS types were already complaining somewhat helplessly that no matter how outrageous they tried to be, the media turned them into grist for its mill on the evening news. Earlier generations of radicals had not had to deal with this problem of acceptance, though you can already see it coming in the twenties when Bohemianism became a cult.
Tom: The election of Ronald Reagan appeared to many to signal a new ascendancy of crudely reactionary forces. Were there ever moments in the eighties when you thought that you had been premature in proclaiming “the disappearance of … paternalistic repressions” and the falsity of the view that ours is a “repressive,” “authoritarian” society?
Gerald: Yes, in a short piece I contributed to a book of responses to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (Beyond the Cheering and Bashing, Seaton and Buckley, eds.), I acknowledged that I had been too facile in making that kind of argument. Reflecting on what I had called “the triviality of a ‘freedom’ without content or direction,” I said, “I guess that freedom doesn’t any longer seem so ‘trivial’ to me now that Bloom and his cronies are so eager to prescribe what its ‘content’ and ‘direction’ will be” (p. 163).
Tom: I think that the attentive reader of your first two books would have found even there a nascent interest in what I’ll call for a moment “institutional” issues. But I’d like to hear your own account of the shift from a preoccupation with problems of theory and interpretation to historical and “structural” questions—questions, that is, about the origin and development of English studies and about the institutional contexts in which the work of literary study is carried out.
Gerald: In the 1970s I read an essay by William Riley Parker called “Where Do English Departments Come From?” and felt this was a great question that was still pretty neglected. When and why did we decide to do this stuff in the rather strange (to me) way we think it has to be done, i.e., having departments of literature, fields, periods, etc.? In the sixties dissatisfaction with established institutions had provoked inquiries into how they had got that way, and I followed that logic of dissatisfaction leading to historicization. Also, I was getting maxed-out on arguing with everybody over the theories of the meaning of meaning, etc., and was looking for a way to get beyond them, as it were. I came to sense that if you could just tell the story of how something got to be what it is—i.e., how it might have been quite otherwise—you could “unmask” it in a way without having to refute it. Richard Ohmann’s book, English in America (1976), also provided me with a model of how historicizing English departments could be a critique of them, though I dissented from Ohmann’s version of radical politics.
Tom: In Professing Literature you argue that the “field coverage model” is virtually definitive, not only of departments of English, but of American higher education as a whole from the latter part of the nineteenth century onward. For those who may not have read Professing Literature, I wonder if you’d offer a brief account of what this structural principle entails, why you think it emerged when it did, what it achieves, and what problems it entails.
Gerald: First, I never said that “coverage” is bad—it was the disconnection between the fields the curriculum “covered” that bothered me, the idea that if students cover the major periods and genres of lit this somehow will add up to a sense of literary history, or the great tradition, in their heads, or if they cover some science, art, math, history, etc., this will somehow add up to a coherent whole. The coverage model chops knowledge and culture into disconnected bits that supposedly are synthesized and integrated in the students’ mind, so that the school or college no longer has to take the responsibility to figure out how to connect them.
Tom: Once the unitary curriculum of the American college collapsed—for complex historical reasons—was there any real alternative to the “field coverage” approach? Were there roads not taken that might have led in more fruitful directions than those we’ve actually followed?
Gerald: Yes, an alternative would have been to institutionalize the dissensus that was always there anyway and that arguably is the center of intellectual life. To put it another way, the alternative would’ve been to turn educational institutions into centers of intellectual discussion—a bizarre notion, I realize, but I’ve always been a romantic deep down. Instead of asking students to cover disconnected subjects, we would constitute the curriculum as a connected intellectual discussion and invite them to join it. (See Arthur Applebee’s recent book, The Curriculum as a Conversation). The book I’ve just finished, Clueless in Academe, tries to flesh out this argument more than I have done up to now.
Tom: Your quarrel with the “field coverage model” in Professing Literature seems to me to go beyond the problem of mere “disconnection.” Is it not your view that by organizing departments and entire institutions around “field coverage,” we have short-circuited the possibility of the conflictual or “dissensus” approach that you favor?
Gerald: Yes, quite so. In my last comment I was simply trying to avoid the implication—which some have drawn from my earlier statements about “coverage”—that I’m against asking students to “cover” a more or less diverse range of subjects, fields, or historical periods. This demand in itself is innocent enough. It’s what has got loaded into it, or how it has got institutionalized that bothers me.
Tom: “The field-coverage principle,” you write, makes “the department and the curriculum virtually self-regulating … without the need for instructors to debate aims and methods. …The field coverage principle made the modern educational machine friction free, for by making individuals functionally independent in carrying out their tasks it prevented conflicts from erupting which would otherwise have had to be confronted, debated, and worked through.” This is what you elsewhere describe as “a principle of systematic non- relationship”—which I take to be the governing principle of American higher education. And I confess to some discouragement as I try to consider how faculty are to be persuaded to surrender the nearly absolute autonomy that such a principle confers upon them.
Gerald: Yes, it’s discouraging all right. But I think faculty can be persuaded that in the long run it’s more in their interest to collaborate at least some of the time with their colleagues than to be loners. We can point them to the culture of research, for example, which has meaning only as a collective enterprise even though it may be produced individually and competitively. No professor is “autonomous” when he or she publishes a book and gets reviewed, gives a paper at a professional meeting and gets responses from peers, applies for a grant that’s peer-reviewed, etc. We need to point to these and other models of non-autonomy that academics have long routinely accepted in order to make these models less threatening when brought into the process of teaching.
Tom: Your reference to the Parker essay, “Where Do English Departments Come From,” prompts a number of questions. For at least a quarter of a century now, the most sophisticated thinkers in the humanities and social sciences have emphasized the contingent nature of institutional arrangements: those arrangements, we have come to recognize, are effects of power rather than of “nature.” Yet questions about the sanctity of academic disciplines and departments are still treated as heretical, as if departments are somehow the reflection of transcendent orderings of knowledge; and sometimes these impassioned defenses of the institutional status quo come from the very people who have done most to make us doubt its legitimacy. Can you explain any of this to me?
Gerald: I think what makes it hard to challenge the “sanctity” of disciplines even though, as you point out, we presumably no longer believe in their naturalness, is the absence of any strong alternative to disciplinarity. If disciplines are artificial and arbitrary, so are any alternatives you can name. We can agree to be interdisciplinary, but then which of the infinite possible combinations of interdisciplinarity would we choose to put in place of the established disciplinarity? So in the absence of any self-evident alternative to that established disciplinarity, we easily fall back on it even though, as you say, we don’t quite believe in it any longer. And to me this is not necessarily a great problem, since I don’t believe there is some Platonic idea of a correct mode of organization out there that would clearly be better than the present division of disciplines. I come back to the point that the problem is disconnection, not the fact of division of labor or some particular set of divisions. The problem is not how we put Humpty Dumpty back together after cutting him up, but that we generally fail to put him back together at all, at least for most students.
Tom: Your remarks suggest that the study of literary texts need not be organized as it is at present. We might quite as readily read George Eliot alongside Comte, Spencer, Darwin, and Marx in a Department of Nineteenth-Century Studies as alongside the Brontes and Dickens and Thackeray in something called an English Department.
Gerald: Yes, though we could also bring about the same result with Departments of English, History, and Philosophy in which instructors worked together. Again, it seems to me important not to get too caught up in the search for the magical Right Form of Organization, but rather to start connecting the components of whatever form of organization we choose. My premise is that no form of organization will work well if it is disconnected.
Tom: We all know venturesome colleagues who offer courses of the kind I’ve just hinted at; and at most colleges and universities there are various “programs,” “centers,” “institutes,” that try to offer alternative ways of ordering knowledge or linking disparate fields of study. Are these peripheral efforts sufficient?
Gerald: As your choice of words here betrays, we now have “centers” that are “peripheral,” testifying to the way interdisciplinary connection has become a new form of disconnection. For the centers in question tend to be disconnected from each other and from the departments they were supposed to centralize.
Tom: Do they offer the right antidote (or supplement) to the disciplinary department, or are they doomed to a kind of ineffective marginality so long as the disciplinary department remains the defining institutional structure?
Gerald: Again, only connect (though that’s just the beginning—how we connect matters too, and how clear and useful the connection is to students). Universities have been terrific at adding and multiplying new units—especially when there’s money around—but pathetically inept at establishing useful and continuing connections between these units. We need a new generation of administrators trained to create connections and conversations where mutual isolation or hostility has heretofore prevailed. My argument has been that in a diverse culture, many of those connections will have to be based on conflicts and disagreements, or at least risk exploring areas that may or may not turn out to be conflictual.
Tom: If I’m not mistaken, you nowhere recommend that the departmental structure of the university be abandoned. Given all of the incoherence that such a structure inevitably produces—and that you’ve so convincingly demonstrated—can we really achieve a more richly connected undergraduate experience without getting rid of departments?
Gerald: See above. The point to me should be not to get rid of departments—some division of labor is necessary and beneficial—but to connect them in fruitful ways, which might eventually lead to their redefinition and transformation. If we’re not careful we’ll fall into the fallacy that it’s division of labor itself (or bureaucracy) that’s the problem, and that seems to me self-defeating.
Tom: Then too, as I noted earlier, we have “institutes” and “centers” devoted to new orderings of knowledge in Renaissance or Medieval or 18th-Century studies. But it may be that such interdisciplinary centers are themselves “disciplines” that haven’t yet had time to ossify. They will,
in due course, become as rigid and orthodox as the “departments” to which they seemed an alternative. My question, then, is this—though I’m long in getting to it. Is the real problem, so far as undergraduate education is concerned, the department and the “major” as such? Or is it the question of what the “major”—the intellectual construct of the disciplinary department—of what the major is for?
The tacit theory of American higher education, it seems to me, is that “general education” and specialized study—the “major,” if you like—together cultivate certain intellectual powers, a certain kind of mind. But this is not what our colleagues mostly believe. We have, I think, read downward and backward into the undergraduate experience the purposes of graduate study, which is to say disciplinary mastery or expertise. We have made the major a telos rather than a tool. The real question—usually unasked and entirely unanswered—is “ecological”: how do “general education” and the “major” operate together in the system of undergraduate education? How can they mesh more effectively? What precisely are the qualities and powers of mind that we want to encourage, and how can we achieve this?
Gerald: I try not to get caught up in the general education vs. disciplinary specialization opposition, which seems to me misleadingly posed. The educational problem for me lies in the opaque nature of academic culture, whether at the general education or the disciplinary level. Traditionally educators keep swinging back and forth between these polarities—now emphasizing generality, now specialism—when it’s the whole framework that needs to be rethought.
This is an opportune time for such rethinking, I believe, because disciplines that were once narrowly specialized (and therefore hard to reconcile with the needs of undergraduate teaching at either the general education or the major level) have lately begun to address more “general” implications, not by abandoning specialism but by providing larger contexts for it. Thus while a lot of research in the humanities still takes the form of close readings of literature, a lot of this research is concerned with the broader theoretical, historical, cultural and political contexts of those close readings. Close reading has not been abandoned in the humanities (though I have colleagues who believe it has), but it has been contextualized in broader ways. And in other fields one sees something similar: you need only check the book ads in The New York Review of Books to see that academic books now make aggressive “general” claims—you can’t get a book published or get a grant or a good job unless you can show that you’re making big general claims, are “broad-gauged” and “wide-reaching” in your scope, which is the new rhetoric of praise for academics. Sure, a good deal of this is hype (and I’m not concerned here with the quality of this work, some of which is inflated and vacuous, some not), but the point is that the criteria for judging research and publication have shifted dramatically over the last few generations, away from narrow positivist specialism toward broad generalization. (This change has been overlooked because the language in which such broad generalization is couched is often specialized and jargon-ridden).
Now my argument is that at a time when academic research is no longer as narrow and specialized as it once was, the split between research and teaching (or between specialism and generalism) appears in a new light. That is, the way to overcome the split should be not to try to upgrade teaching and downgrade research, which, as I said above, is self-defeating, but rather to generalize and teach our research. And to a large extent we are already doing this and have been for some time; thus some of the best general education courses, I believe, take issues that are vital in the research culture and generalize them for nonspecializing students. I develop this argument at more length in two essays: “The Charge That Research Is Narrow and Opaque Is Decades Out of Date,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 (October 1992), A56; “Epilogue: The Scholar in Society,” Introduction to Scholarship in the Modern Languages and Literatures, Joseph Gibaldi, ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992), 343-60.
Tom: Formalism makes—or purports to make—the text available to any reader with eyes and intelligence, requiring no cultural accumulations or acquisitions.
Gerald: Which is clearly untrue or, as I say, dotty. I assume there is nothing on this earth (i.e., this side of the Protestant state of grace) that requires “no cultural accumulations or acquisitions.” Do you disagree? Is a baby’s knowledge of who his parents are not a cultural acquisition?
Tom: While the early humanist opponents of the New Criticism represented it as barbarously technical—as opponents of deconstruction have done more recently—it can plausibly be claimed that formalism was a method for making literature available to readers whose homes and bookshelves contained no sets of Goethe or Emerson or Sophocles. How do you respond to such claims?
Gerald: As I have above: Yes, formalism was indeed exactly what you say in intention. Its effect, alas, has been to keep literature about as mysterious to the great unwashed as it ever was. Which is not to say it’s completely obvious what method would have done better, but I’ll take my chances with something different.
Tom: Let me press you just a bit on what you call the “dottiness” of attending narrowly to “the text itself,” beginning with an observation about Yeats, a very great poet who finally seems to me more immediate, more accessible, than he has been made to seem by the edifice of modern scholarship. That Yeats can be difficult I do not deny; but students receive him now so swaddled in mythic and historical lore, so buried in recondite interpretation, that the wondrous qualities of the verse really are lost to them—made less rather than more available. In short, Yeats is difficult, but not nearly so difficult as we’ve made him: a great loss for everybody.
Gerald: Had Yeats been a little more “swaddled in mythic and historical lore” when he was taught to me, I’d at least have had a shot at glimpsing a shred of meaning in “The Tower” rather than being turned off Yeats and poetry, which I hated. I know there are students who get all tingly reading mellifluous sounding language whose meaning is opaque, but I wasn’t one of these as an undergraduate (and wasn’t the New Criticism against this sort of washover from Pre-Raphaelite gauze and Celtic twilight?). Yes, sure, the swaddling in historical lore that teachers did before the New Critical “text itself” people came along had also turned off students in droves. You may recall the chapter in Professing Lit that argues that the old historicism to which the New Critics reacted was a very narrow and boring kind that reduced “history” precisely to historical “lore,” i.e., disembodied facts about the writer’s life and times and flawed romances that could be provided in the footnotes to the Norton Anthology. No wonder the prototypical history the New Critics ridiculed was captured in questions like “What Porridge Had John Keats?” and “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” But your question does open up the complications of the problem: history can be just as decontextualized as the text itself, and just as prone to fall flat with students who don’t relate either to Yeats’ texts or to the history that informs them. But this is an argument for better historicizing rather than none.
Tom: You’re certainly right to be suspicious of “mellifluous sounding language” and “Pre-Raphaelite gauze,” and right in saying that the formalists, (taking their cue
from Eliot and Hulme), dealt pretty harshly with such rhapsodizings—the poetic rhapsodizing in the first instance and gushy critical “appreciations” in the second. My point in speaking of the “wondrous qualities” of Yeats’ verse is that there really is a way of talking about the language of “No Second Troy” or “A Prayer for My Daughter” or “Among School Children” which is neither vacuously rhapsodic nor dependent on mythic arcana.
Gerald: I agree, but I question whether that kind of talk is what undergrads most need or will profit from, especially those who lack the larger map of intellectual culture you need to have before such aestheticizing moves can make sense to you.
Tom: I’ve always thought that the standard gloss on “honey of generation,” in the last and greatest of these poems, which follows Yeats’ own note about Porphyry’s “Cave of the Nymphs” is a good instance of how we go wrong. Whatever Yeats borrowed from this source, contextually there is a much more immediate meaning, the randy old Irishman thinking of how sexual lubriciousness itself “betrays” women into “generation.” We don’t need our Bulfinch or Larousse or even M.H. Abrams to figure that out. At any rate, the “way of talking” that I have in mind has to do with internal pattern, with what I earlier called the relation of part with part; it answers the question, “How is this put together?” or “How does this ‘work’ as an object of contemplation?” while arguably begging such questions as “What does this poem do?” or “What does it tell us?” or “Is this true?” or “Does it matter?” Another way to say it—you know all of this and have devoted a good book to debunking the approach—is that one can read a poem in a way that doesn’t ask what line 12 “means” or signifies, but only what its relation is to line 4 or line 35. What emerges, I think, is often a very good “map” of the text, something that I find quite satisfying; but I grant that for many readers— including many students—this all seems a kind of pointless or sterile game, depriving them of a reason to follow where the map leads.
Gerald: What you grant at the end is what I’m trying to stress, though again I’m not saying aestheticizing moves are inherently “pointless or sterile,” just that we need to think more about the conditions under which they will make sense to students who don’t grow up presupposing a literary culture.
Tom: Some of the advocates of formalism have taken their stand not so much on its theoretical cogency as on its pedagogical usefulness. They’ve claimed that privileging the autonomous artifact makes visible an object that would otherwise disappear altogether—absorbed into history or ethics or some other discourse. Either the text is an arrangement of language for aesthetic ends or it is nothing at all—or so the argument goes—the task of interpretation being to understand how that arrangement works—the relation of part with part. Have you any sympathy with such views and the classroom procedures to which they point?
Gerald: None. In my view, privileging the autonomous artifact makes the object invisible rather than visible. Imagine trying to explain to a Martian or a Victorian what a cell phone is by eliminating all background information and asking him/her/it to contemplate the cell phone in itself: “No, no, don’t ask me what this thing is for or what kinds of behavior it fits into—those are just extrinsic considerations. Just look at this object in itself up real close, OK? Got it now? No? Hmm, well, sorry, but evidently you just don’t have the sensibility to appreciate the cell phone in its cellphoneness. You’ve been watching too much TV.”
Tom: My comment on Martians and cell phones is similar, and depends upon a Ransomish distinction that you’ll certainly reject. If you think of the phone as an object of utility, the sole value of which is to link us to other persons, places, etc., then of course all you say is correct. But you might, I suppose, “aestheticize” the phone—rather like those hideous Movado watches, transformed by advertising from timepieces into museum pieces; might, in other words, say, “This object is opaque: do not consider what it does or may do, but only its shape or form or appearance. Train your attention on that. Contemplate its proportions, the numerical array, the way in which the shape of the antenna knob mirrors the shape of the whole.” In the case of the cell phone this is all manifestly silly, since it seems to me so clearly an object of utility rather than of contemplation. But I think it can be argued that what certain objects are for—your question—is precisely contemplation. That, so to speak, is their use.
Gerald: Again, I grant that there is such a thing as looking at an object aesthetically, whereby we suspend the question of its practical use and contemplate it in its internal relations, color, etc. Show me ten Nazi posters and I can rate them on scale of most/least aesthetically successful. I’m not saying you can’t do this kind of aestheticization or even that you shouldn’t do it (for certain purposes it’s necessary), but only that it doesn’t follow that this kind of aestheticizing way of looking should necessarily be privileged in the teaching of art and literature. That is, it’s not at all self-evident that the privileged use of objects we classify as “art” is contemplation rather than utility.
Tom: And again I think it possible to produce a pretty good “map” of such objects—even for a Martian—without a great deal of “background information.”
Gerald: Here’s where we disagree: it was revulsion against utilitarianism that led Ransom (like Kant and other eighteenth-century thinkers before him) to feel the need for a category of aesthetic contemplation to begin with (see Martha Woodmansee’s recent book on this); I think it would be difficult to explain to the Martian why it should contemplate the cell phone aesthetically without explaining the bad aspects of utilitarianism, etc., which would bring in the history of ideas and culture, as we need to do to make sense for students of the kind of aesthetic appreciation you’re talking about. In other words, I’m not against such aestheticizing so much as concerned that we fail to make it intelligible.
Tom: Then too, in deference to your own historicizing impulses, I wonder if it makes sense to try to historicize the formalist impulse itself. We both have argued that the institutionalization of the New Criticism—though not its conceptual origin—corresponds closely with the passage of the GI Bill and with profound demographic changes in American higher education. In other words, the formalist insistence upon “the words on the page,” at once deeply Protestant and aggressively democratic, dispenses with the need for specialized knowledge of any kind: philological, biographical, historical.
Gerald: Again, you’re right on target as regards what formalism intended, but let’s stop here for a moment with “deeply Protestant and aggressively democratic.” Can anything be both? In Protestantism you get to Heaven by being among the elect, which means having been lucky enough to have been chosen by God for a conversion experience that can’t ultimately be translated into good works or rational doctrines, that is, that’s ultimately incomprehensible in human terms. Which means that only a few of us are likely to be saved (see Michael Wigglesworth, “The Day of Doom,” or Jonathan Edwards, “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended”). Ultimately, the Protestant theory of selectively implanted grace is hard to reconcile with the democratic theory of truth being available to everybody, which maybe explains a lot about why the USA as well as literary pedagogy is screwed up. In any case, I would put the question of the “specialized knowledge” needed to understand literature differently. To grasp what a cell phone is, our Martian would need to understand that we earthlings have developed a practice we call telephoning, which is imbedded in a larger practice called communicating, etc. Is that “specialized” knowledge? Well, not to most of us, since we already know it, but to the Martian it would be “specialized” since he/she/it doesn’t. In other words, whether information counts as “specialized” or not depends on the extent to which you already know it or don’t. To students who never heard of Yeats the fact that he’s a poet sounds pretty specialized, whereas to us it doesn’t.
Tom: In referring to formalism as “deeply Protestant” I had in mind not so much notions of grace and election, as the possibility of direct communion with God through the unmediated text. In point of doctrine at least, formalism suggests that one can dispense with received understandings, institutional intercession, and a caste of priestly interpreters, in favor of the sacred text and the unaided light one brings to it.
Gerald: I thought I was saying something like this too: Protestantism’s stress on the unmediated text is tied to its stress on the unmediated experience of God’s grace; dispensing with received understandings, etc., parallels the lit teacher who tells the class, “Forget what the critics and cultural historians say and just read the text intensely, for itself.” I believe this kind of pedagogy is democratizing up to a point, but that ultimately it perpetuates the mystical distinction between those who “get it” and those who don’t in matters of art. I think arts education should provide more helpful explanations to those who don’t get it than I think the theory of formalism gives us.