In Defense of Poetry
Put the literature back into literary studies
Dec 1, 1999
33 Min read time
One of the most common genres in writing about academia today is the epitaph for the humanities. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Weisbuch–an English professor at the University of Michigan and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation–declares:
Today’s consensus about the state of the humanities–it’s bad, it’s getting worse, and no one is doing much about it–is supported by dismal facts. The percentage of undergraduates majoring in humanities fields has been halved over the past three decades. Financing for faculty research has decreased. The salary gap between full-time scholars in the humanities and in other fields has widened, and more and more humanists are employed part time and paid ridiculously low salaries.... As doctoral programs in the humanities proliferate irresponsibly, turning out more and more graduates who cannot find jobs, the waste of human talent becomes enormous, intolerable.
More broadly, the humanities, like the liberal arts generally, appear far less surely at the center of higher education than they once did. We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We are living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities–with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever–has become plain lack of interest. No one’s even angry with us now, just bored.1
Devastating as that last comment is, it’s all too accurate. Even the current boom in the economy cannot accommodate the best of our new humanities Ph.Ds.
Weisbuch does also offer some "solutions" (he calls them "Six Proposals to Revive the Humanities"): (1) gather data on our departments, finding out where our graduates get jobs so as to insure better planning; (2) practice "doctoral birth control," using Draconian means to cut down the number of entering graduate students; (3) "reclaim the curriculum" by having all courses taught by full-time faculty members rather than adjuncts; (4) "create jobs beyond academe for humanities graduates"; (5) "redesign graduate programs so as to accommodate the new community college market, where teaching skills are more important than scholarly expertise"; and (6) "become newly public"–that is, to make better contacts with the so-called outside world. 2
The trouble with such practical solutions is that they assume that we humanists have a clear sense of what the humanities do and what makes them valuable–that we simply need to convince those crass others, whether within the university or outside its walls, that they really need us. But that assumption is untrue.
What are the humanities? Consider the answer provided on the web site of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH):
What are the Humanities?
The humanities are not any one thing. They are all around us and evident in our daily lives. When you visit an exhibition on "The Many Realms of King Arthur" at your local library, that is the humanities. When you read the diary of a seventeenth-century New England midwife, that is the humanities. When you watch an episode of The Civil War, that is the humanities too.
What a wonderful justification, this last, for being a couch potato! And this vacuous statement is not an aberration. Just look up the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which brought the NEH and NEA into being:
1. "The arts and humanities belong to all the people of the United States." What can "belong" possibly mean here? I as citizen do not "own" specific art works and philosophical treatises the way I might own stock or real estate. And how does this compare to the sciences? Does microbiology–or protein chemistry–"belong" to all the people of the United States?
2. "An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future." At best, this statement is blandly patronizing. Imagine someone claiming that "An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to the humanities alone, but must give full value and support to those great branches of intellectual activity, the sciences and social sciences"? But further: the assertion that arts and humanities somehow make us better persons and citizens is, at best, implausible. Hitler, let’s remember, was so enraptured by Wagner that he attended performances of Lohengrin at the Vienna Opera House ten times in 1908.
3. "The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups." Do the arts and humanities foster diversity? I know of no evidence for this proposition. Heidegger’s essays on Hölderlin are generally held to be classics of twentieth-century philosophy and literature. They aim to define the poet’s unique genius, but the last thing they foster is "respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups."
But if the NEH’s claims for the humanities are, to say the least, questionable, they are also quite typical. At Stanford, where I teach, the official Bulletin contains this description:
The School of Humanities and Sciences, with over 40 departments and interdepartmental degree programs, is the primary locus for the superior liberal arts education offered by Stanford University. Through exposure to the humanities, undergraduates study the ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions of the human experience, past and present, and so are prepared to make thoughtful and imaginative contributions to the culture of the future.
The language used here is revealing. Whereas the social sciences (according to the Bulletin) teach "theories and techniques for the analysis of specific societal issues," and the "hard" sciences prepare students to become the "leaders" in our increasingly technological society, the humanities "expose" students to the "ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions of human experience." Exposure is nice enough–but also perfectly dispensable when leadership and expertise are at stake. Indeed, the humanities, as now understood and taught in our universities, no longer possess what Pierre Bourdieu calls "symbolic capital": an "accumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration, or honour" founded on the "dialectic of knowledge [connaissance] and recognition [reconnaissance]." In the capitalist and multicultural democracy of late-twentieth-century America, ordered as it is based on money rather than on social class, "exposure" to the "intellectual dimensions of the human experience" is no longer a sine qua non of success or even the Good Life: witness Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.
Nothing could bring this point home more forcibly than the recent controversy over the NEH’s invitation to President Clinton to deliver the 2000 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, an invitation Clinton declined after a strong protest from the scholarly community. The annual Jefferson Lecture, inaugurated in 1972 by Lionel Trilling, has been given by the likes of Jaroslav Pelikan, C. Vann Woodward, Vincent Scully, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Emily T. Vermeule–all of them serious scholars and outstanding intellectuals in their respective disciplines, ranging from architecture (Scully) to history (Woodward) to classics (Vermeule). Accordingly, when William Ferris, the chairman of the NEH, explained that his hope was that in making the Jefferson Lecture a Presidential event, "the humanities" would be brought "into the lives of millions of Americans who don’t know what the humanities are and have no sense of the great work we do [at the NEH]," what he was really saying was that the term humanities no longer means anything, that at best it has a negative thrust–specifically, in the case of the Jefferson Lecture, giving the President a chance to make a speech that would not be overtly political but would deal with what are vaguely conceived as "humanistic" values. And of course this "lecture" would be written by the President’s speech writers–a situation that, in the scholarly community, would be classified as plagiarism.
Given this climate, perhaps we can think more seriously about the state of the "humanities" if we get rid of the word "humanities"–a word, incidentally, of surprisingly recent vintage. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose supplement appears in 1933, does not include it at all. Humane,humanism, humanist, humanity, humanitarian: these are familiar cognates of the word human. But humanities was not the term of choice for an area of knowledge and set of fields of study until after World War II. The more usual (and broader) rubric was Liberal Arts, Arts and Sciences, or Arts, Letters, and Sciences. The shift in terminology–reflected in the now-ubiquitous humanities centers, humanities special programs, and humanities fellowships–testifies, paradoxically, to an increasing perplexity about what these designations might mean.
Suppose, then, that we get down to cases and look at the state of one the central branches of the humanities: the study of literature, or, as I prefer to call it, poetics. "Literature" is an imprecise designator that came into use only in the late eighteenth century,3 whereas discussions of the poetic are more ancient and more cross-cultural. The discipline of poetics–which, from Plato through the nineteenth century, comprises narrative and drama as well as lyric–has been classified in four basic ways:
1. The poetic can be understood as a branch of rhetoric. From Cicero and Quintilian to such medieval rhetoricians as Geoffrey of Vinsauf to the late eighteenth century rhetorical handbooks of Hugh Blair and George Campbell, the three divisions of written composition–inventio, dispositio, and elucutio(invention, arrangement, and style)–have been studied as a way to improve the practice of writing (or speech making) as well as the appreciation and understanding of the speaking and writing of others. Rhetoric thus means practical criticism–the examination of diction and syntax, rhythm, and composition.
But effective rhetoric, as Aristotle first demonstrated in what is still the great treatment of the subject, is no mere "ornament," as the tropes and rhetorical figures used to be called, but a matter of ethos and pathos: the artful presentation of a self designed to be persuasive to its audience, and the construction of an audience that will empathize with that self. If, to take some Renaissance examples, Philip Sidney is an excellent example of the ethical argument (in his case, the sprezzatura that makes us sympathize with Astrophel as with the modest speaker of The Defense of Poetry), John Donne is the master of the pathetic argument: the urgent and passionate appeal to the poet’s, and preacher’s, fellow sinners to be at one with his suffering.
In a forthcoming book, John Guillory argues that rhetoric is at the very center of our discipline as literary scholars. No other discipline, after all, has as its central focus the issue of how language is actually used in writing, whether in newspaper editorials or poems or the weather report. Conversely, inattention to rhetoric, as in Harold Bloom’s powerful poetry criticism, downgrades the materiality of the text at the expense of the ideas expressed in it, thus occluding the significant differences between, say, a Wallace Stevens poem and an Emerson essay.
2. From Plato to Heidegger and Levinas, poetry has often been understood as a branch of philosophy, and hence as a potential expression of truth and knowledge. Because poetry couldn’t pass Plato’s truth test–even Homer told false and salacious stories about the Gods–the poets were ostensibly banished from his Republic. I shall have more to say of this below, but for the moment, note only that this conception of poetry is antithetical to the first. If the main purpose of a literary text is to convey knowledge or formulate truths, questions of form and genre take a back seat. Rimbaud’s abandonment of the alexandrine, for example, in favor of free verse and then prose poems would matter much less than the content of those dense and oblique Rimbaldian texts, verse or prose. Again, if theories of poetry-as-rhetoric regard James Joyce and Ezra Pound as key modernists, the theory of poetry-as-philosophy would (and has) put Samuel Beckett or Paul Celan at that center.
The treatment of poetry as philosophy has produced some marvelous criticism, especially in the Romantic period and again after the Second World War, when Heidegger came to prominence. But it also has its problems, perhaps most notably that it favors one kind of poetry at the expense of all others–Wordsworth and Shelley, for example, at the expense of Popean or Swiftean satire, which doesn’t lend itself to comparable philosophical reflection. Whether the philosophical grid is Cartesian or Kantian or Nietzschean, lexical difference is subordinated to the Logos.
3. From antiquity to the present, poetry has also been classified as one of the arts(and here Aristotle is more important than Plato). In this configuration, poetry has to be studied side by side with, and in the context of, the visual arts, music, dance, and architecture. As such, discourse about poetry involves what Plato, in the Ion, calls technê kai epistemê. Technê was the standard Greek word both for a practical skill and for the systematic knowledge or experience which underlies it. So technê, meaning "craft," "skill," "technique," "method," and "art," coupled with epistemê, meaning "knowledge," is the domain of the arts. Plato himself concludes in the Ion that discourse about poetry doesn’t have sufficient technê kai epistemê, and that the rhapsode’s skill at speaking about Homer (but not other poets) is a matter of inspiration–in other words, a second-order poetry, one that cannot be taught or learned–it simply is.
4. Partly as a result of such Platonic skepticism about "teaching" poetry, as well as the unfortunate division of "literature" departments into the "critical" (English) and the "creative" (Creative Writing), poetics has increasingly been viewed as a branch of history. From this perspective, which is the guiding principle of contemporary "cultural studies," a poetic text is primarily to be understood as a symptom of the larger culture to which it belongs and as an index to a particular historical or cultural formation. Literary practices, moreover, are taken to be no different in kind from other social or cultural practices. A poem or novel or film is discussed, not for its intrinsic merits or as the expression of individual genius, but for its political role, the "cultural work" it performs, or what it reveals about the state of the society. In this scheme of things, questions of value simply vanish, there being no reason why Henry James’s novels are a better index to or symptom of the cultural aporias of turn-of-the-century America than the best-sellers of the period–or, for that matter, early twentieth century domestic architecture, popular periodicals, or medical treatises. Read the list of topics currently being studied by the fellows at a university humanities center and you will find that "literature" functions almost exclusively in this way: the project titles would suggest to anyone outside the academy that all the fellows come from a single department–history.4
Literature as rhetoric, literature as philosophy, literature as art, literature as history: what is at stake in adopting one of these classifications to the exclusion of all the others? Interestingly, the first three inevitably incorporate history into the discipline, in that they examine the history of the different poetic, rhetorical, philosophical, and generic forms. But history of is very different from the transposition that views literature as history–the position of contemporary cultural studies, which is committed to the demolition of such "obsolete" categories as poetic autonomy, poetic truth, and rhetorical value. Since cultural studies currently dominates the arena of literary study, I want to focus, for the moment, on this particular approach.
We might begin by noting that the treatment of poetry as a branch of history or culture is based on the assumption that the poetry of a period is a reliable index to that period’s larger intellectual and ideological currents. Beckett’s Endgame, for example, testifies to the meaninglessness and horror of a post-Auschwitz, nuclear world. But as critics from Aristotle to Adorno have understood, the theory that imaginative poetry reflects its time ignores what is specific to a work of art, along with its powers of invention and transformation. Thus Aristotle’s point, in the ninth chapter of the Poetics:
The difference between a historian and poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse.... The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and serious [kai philosophoteron kai spoudaioteron] than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.
By a "general truth" I mean the sort of thing that a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily.... A "particular fact" is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him.
It is clear, then ... that the poet must be a "maker" [poietes] not of verses but of stories, since he is a poet in virtue of his "representation," and what he represents is action.5
The meaning of the possible ("what might happen") is made clearer by Aristotle’s response to Plato’s complaint that poets are dangerous to the state because they tell lies. "The standard of what is correct," writes Aristotle, "is not the same in the art of poetry as it is in the art of social conduct or any other art.... It is less of an error not to know that a female stag has no horns than to make a picture that is unrecognizable."
But of course Plato understood this distinction perfectly. The danger of poetry to the ideal republic, after all, is in direct proportion to its power, its charm, its magic: "We will beg Homer and other poets not to be angry if we cancel those and all similar passages ["false" stories about the gods], not that they are not poetic and pleasing to most hearers, but because the more poetic they are the less are they suited to the ears of boys and men who are destined to be free." One could hardly endow the poetic with more power. And indeed, when in Book X of the Republic, Plato takes up the ancient "quarrel between philosophy and poetry," so as to dismiss the latter from the well-governed state, he admits that "we ourselves are very conscious of her spell ... her magic." That magic reappears at the conclusion of the Republic with the poetic myth of Er, as if to let us know that, despite all the good reasons to the contrary, poetry is for Plato finally the highest calling.
In distinguishing mimesis (representation) from diegesis (straightforward exposition or narrative in the author’s own person), Plato, and Aristotle after him, isolates the fictive as the essential characteristic of the poetic construct: not what has happened but what might happen, either possibly or probably. In his celebrated book, Metahistory, Hayden White taught us that, contra Aristotle, historical writing, even the "simplest" chronicle, also has a fictive element. White places nineteenth-century historiography, from Hegel and Michelet to Nietzsche and Croce, within the larger tradition of narrative fiction. But Metahistory was published a quarter of a century ago, in 1973, and since then a major reversal has set in. For even as the notion of text as representation continues to be operative (there being no "reality" outside textual representation that one can access), in practice the study of representation as all there is has created, ironically enough, a situation where the what of mimesis has become much more important than the how. Subject matter–whether divine right kingship in Renaissance England or the culture of condoms in early twentieth-century America–becomes all.
At its best, the alignment of poetic and cultural practices has given literary study a new life. Ulysses, for example, was traditionally read as a parodic modern-dayOdyssey or as an elaborate experiment in which plot and character are subordinated to the investigation of the possibilities of language. From the perspective of cultural studies, it is seen as a brilliant exposé of colonial subjugation–illustrating, as it does, the fate of ordinary Dubliners under British imperial rule. Or again, Ulysses reveals the "colonial" status as well as the hidden strength of women in the masculinist Joycean universe. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Nostromo are similarly read as depictions of the horrors of colonial oppression under capitalist expansion, this time with respect to race in Africa and Central America; here too the representation of gender has become the subject of interesting and useful critique.
The downside of the equation between cultural studies and literary studies is that, carried to its logical conclusion, cultural studies dispenses with the literary altogether. Studies of consumerism, for example, can be based on the analysis of shopping malls or Home Depot layouts; no literary texts are required. Teen culture can be explored through music, film, and computer games. Current social mores and cultural constraints can be profitably studied by examining Internet discourse. And so on. Everything, after all, can be a text–so why not a golf course? A skating rink? A theme park? One professor, I read in the Bulletin of a leading university, "specializes in 20th-century American literature, film and cultural studies.... She has begun a ... book-length project that reads important post-World War II Hollywood films as public relations maneuvers, with which the studios sought to create a benign impression of a beleaguered industry and to shape the nation’s social and economic agenda during the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy."
Such studies are regularly designated as "interdisciplinary," but what are the disciplines involved? In this case, the archives of the Hollywood studios would be relevant, as would the correspondence of producers and directors and interviews with those still alive. The basic discipline in question is history but the mode of analysis would be, broadly speaking, anthropological, in keeping with the cultural critic’s primary purpose: to unmask a particular social and economic agenda. Treating a film like The Best Years of Our Lives as historical/cultural index rather than as art work or philosophical construct is supposed to be broader, more "interdisciplinary," than "mere" close reading or rhetorical analysis. In reality, though, it is predicated on a curious refusal–the refusal, as a matter of principle, to distinguish between the daily schlock manufactured by the consciousness industries (as in this case Hollywood movies), and those films that are conceived and designed to be works of art. In the name of even-handedness and "scientific" detachment, cultural studies has gone a long way in removing the pleasure intrinsic to the production and reception of poetics.
In Chapter 4 of the Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of aesthetic pleasure: the "pleasure of representation" and the "pleasure of recognition":
Speaking generally, poetry seems to owe its origin to two particular causes, both natural. From childhood men have an instinct for representation, and in this respect man differs from the other animals in that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things. And then there is the enjoyment people always get from representations.
The pleasure of representation is the basic human instinct one can observe most directly in young children who "play" at being someone else, who make up a story and pass it off as "true." It is the pleasure of invention, of fictiveness. The twin pleasure, that of recognition, is its mirror image, the pleasure of taking in the impersonations, fictions, and language creations of others and recognizing their justice. When Prufrock concludes his "love song" with the line, "Till human voices wake us and we drown," the most un-Prufrockian of us will recognize the aptness of the image.
Pleasure was paramount for Aristotle as it was for the Plato, who expelled poetry from his Republic because it caused too much pleasure. But of course the pleasure calculus is complex: "one should not seek," we read in Poetics XIV, "from tragedy all kinds of pleasure but that which is peculiar to tragedy, and since the poet must by ‘representation’ produce the pleasure which comes from feeling pity and fear, obviously this quality must be embodied in the incidents." Catharsis, the purging of pity and fear, is not an end in itself; it is a particular kind of poetic pleasure. And so on.
It is, I would argue, the contemporary fear and subordination of the pleasures of representation and recognition–the pleasures of the fictive, the what-might-happen–to the what-has-happened, the historical/cultural, that has reduced the status of literary study in the academy today. The neo-Puritan notion that literature and the other arts must be somehow "useful," and only useful–that the Renaissance and eighteenth century dyad of the Horatian aut prodesse aut delectare ("to teach and to delight") no longer operates–has produced the mindset behind the NEH’s mission statement. If the arts are primarily designed to furnish us with role models from the past and thus make us capable of imagining a better future, they will always be found wanting. And in pretending that good artists are necessarily good people, people with the "right" ideas, who are bent on unmasking oppressive ideological formations, we will always find ourselves defending the arts and humanities to skeptical members of Congress who are offended by the obscenity of x and the politics of y.
Meanwhile, the NEA and NEH (and the academy) notwithstanding, the demand persists for art, for poeticity, for the pleasure of recognition–only now it is being satisfied outside the academy. In the past few decades–the decades that have supposedly witnessed a decline in interest in what we teach–the arts have flourished in extra-academic venues. Museum exhibitions and symposia, theater lecture series, poetry readings and festivals–these are jammed. It is easy to dismiss as mere bourgeois consumer culture the amazingly large turn-out at such blockbuster exhibitions as the Van Gogh show at the Los Angeles County Museum, with its attendant films, lectures, even staged readings on PBS of Vincent’s correspondence with his brother, Theo. But I have recently witnessed the public hunger for the arts in settings that are harder to dismiss.
A new Institute for Arts and Cultures has opened just this year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; its first director, Paul Holdengräber, is one of those many recent doctorates in comparative literature who couldn’t find an appropriate academic position. The first four speakers at this new Institute were two experimental poets, Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin, the painter Kitaj, and San Francisco’s own famous beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. If I invited David Antin, a "talk poet" I very much admire and on whose work I have written a number of essays, to give a reading for the Stanford English department, I would consider myself fortunate if fifteen people–mostly my own graduate students–showed up. At the LACMA Institute Antin drew a standing-room only audience of four hundred. For Kitaj and Ferlinghetti that number quickly increased to thousands–for Ferlinghetti, tickets had to be reserved and three thousand were turned away–and so now Holdengräber and his museum associates are left with the problem of how to allow sufficient public access to these events, and whether to charge admission.
The same crowds have animated theater symposia, art lectures, and roundtable discussions about literary topics held at non-academic venues around the country. At the American Conservatory Theater symposia in San Francisco, for example, a Monday evening discussion of, say, a new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya or a debate on the meaning of revenge in Euripides’ Hecuba, will draw five hundred people to the Geary Theater. The hunger for literary discussion on the part of a public allegedly victimized by the public relations routines of the media industries is not, it seems, to be suppressed.
But it is the response to poetry that is most surprising. In the past few months, I have spoken at a number of poetry festivals, all of them very well attended and organized. One was the Barnard College Conference "Language Poetry Meets the Lyric," attended by at least five hundred people on a rainy weekend in New York. The second was a conference on Greek avant-garde poetry and diaspora at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, sponsored by a Greek-American endowment. And the third–and most unusual–was the People’s Poetry Gathering in New York held on the weekend of April 9. This event, at which I was on a panel on "Poetry and Democracy," was nothing short of amazing, ranging as it did from a reading at St. Mark’s by the poet laureate Robert Pinsky, to poetry slams at the White Horse Tavern down on Hudson Street, outdoor readings with bands at Irving Plaza, and multicultural events (one called "Is Charlie Chan Really Dead?" featured readings by Lois-Ann Yamanaka and Shani Mootoo). A lot of what went on was fairly amateurish, but the gathering revealed yet again the enormous disconnect between the current demand for poetry, music, art events, and the critical discourse and reductionist approach to the arts that now dominates the academy.
For what is the fabled "interdisciplinarity" that ostensibly characterizes the humanities today? At the Stanford Humanities Center, as at most other such academic centers, it is a code word for subsuming poetry or painting under the cultural studies umbrella. "The Poems of John Ashbery" would be considered a little iffy by the fellowship selection committee, whereas "Cold War ideology and the New York School" would be more acceptable. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, currently means the subordination of the aesthetic to the political. Meanwhile, the truly interdisciplinary subjects are hardly taught at all. Consider photography, for the last century and a half one of the central art/literature disciplines. Photography cannot be studied exclusively in the art history department because most photographs are embedded in text and hence demand a certain literary expertise, especially with respect to rhetoric. I am thinking of the urban images of Eugene Atget vis-à-vis the Arcades Project of Walter Benjamin, of the photocollages of Robert Smithson and Laurie Anderson, as well as of the poet John Kinsella, whose most recent book Kangaroo Virus is a collaboration with the photographer Ron Sims: together, poem and picture create an important semantic debate that is further qualified by the sound track on the CD that accompanies the book. Photography also has an important philosophical dimension because of the complex relations of word and image: Jean-Michel Rabaté has recently edited a book of essays prompted by Roland Barthes’sCamera Lucida. And yet college and university curricula have been notoriously indifferent to this branch of the humanities. The same is true for architecture, a field that has witnessed, in recent years, some of the most exciting interdisciplinary critical discourse we have: witness the journal Zone, edited by Sanford Kwinter. Technically, architecture is, like photography, taught in architecture schools (or as a minor part of the art history curriculum), but I submit that if there were a genuinely interdisciplinary program in architecture, taught by philosophers and literary critics, as well as art critics, it would be tremendously popular. To visit, for example, the new Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and to see the incredible excitement of a highly diverse public is to learn that, Robert Weisbuch to the contrary, the arts are alive and well–they just aren’t a serious component of the university curriculum.
What is needed, in short, is a reorganization of departments themselves, so as to be more accountable to the current demand. Rather than subsuming everything under the history/culture umbrella, we should try the reverse. Thus, we would start with poetry in the generic sense as one of the arts, and an in-departmental program with courses on the verbal medium in relation to the visual and the musical and how these have interacted in different historical periods. Next, we would study the rhetoric of specific poetries across national and cultural boundaries and again in relation to the rhetoric of other art forms. Then there would be courses in poetry as a form of knowledge: Celan and Heidegger, if you will, or Yeats and Gnosticism, or a Lacanian reading of Beckett’s fiction. Finally, some consideration would be given to the historical and cultural place of a poetry like Celan’s, its response to the trauma of the Holocaust and postwar diaspora.
In making the arts, rather than history, the umbrella of choice, we can also begin to make more useful connections between arts and sciences. Consider a recent exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, called "Degas as Photographer." This was, in the scheme of things, a minor exhibition. The Impressionist painter only turned to photography in the 1890s, and he was a self-proclaimed amateur. His photographs are extremely literary: many were evidently undertaken as an homage to Mallarmé, whose whole family is depicted in numerous poses (as is the Halévy family, Laure Halévy having been a model for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes). Some of the photographs are narrative, telling the sad story of one of Mallarmé’s orphan nieces, and there are allusions to specific Mallarmé poems in one or two pictures. But the photographs also have a certain scientific interest, since Degas produced a number of photographs that were inadvertently solarized, and he kept them because he found them visually so striking. Then, too, Degas was one of the first photographers to use enlargement. A fairly pedestrian realistic contact print acquired, due to the time exposure, a blurring of edges that makes these photographs painterly–but, ironically, not at all like Degas’s own paintings, which emphasize the sharp outlines of the body.
It was surprising to see how many people attended this little exhibition. Why would so many Getty visitors–a very diverse multiethnic, multinational group–be interested in what are, after all, amateur photographic works, even if by so celebrated a French painter as Degas? I believe it was the curious relationship of science and literary allusion, of painterly dimension and photography that proved to be so attractive. A comparable "interdisciplinary" mix–this time between verbal text and poetic image, iconography and calligraphy, as well as its exemplification of technê–makes the illuminated manuscript rooms of the Getty so popular.
Now let me come back to the "solutions" to the humanities crisis that Robert Weisbuch advocates–solutions that reflect the thinking of the MLA and similar professional organizations. To gather data on our departments, find out where our graduates get jobs so as to insure better planning, "practice doctoral birth control," "reclaim the curriculum" by having all courses taught by full-time faculty members, and "redesign graduate programs so as to accommodate the new community college market, where teaching skills are more important than scholarly expertise"–all of these are largely window dressing. We don’t need to reclaim a curriculum that has lost its momentum; we need to devise a curriculum that does not reduce literature to cultural exemplum, a curriculum that will make poetics and its special pleasures once again material–not only to coursework, but to the way we live our daily lives.
There are signs that such change is on the way. In the last few years, a surprising number of the assistant professorships in my own field, twentieth-century poetry, have gone to the poeticians, poet-theorists, or poet-scholars who hold the Ph.D. I am thinking of Craig Dworkin at Princeton, George Henry Clarke at Duke, Peter Gizzi at Santa Cruz, Yunte Huang at Harvard, Steve McCaffery at York, Jena Osman at Temple, Juliana Spahr at Hawaii, and Cole Swensen at Denver. The inclusion of these poeticians in English and comparative literature departments is already having repercussions: at the University of Denver, for example, poets Bin Ramke and Cole Swensen organized a large conference on the poetry/theory interface, a conference attended by Romanticists and Renaissance scholars as well as by post-modernists. Perhaps there is an academic demand for literary scholars–but the demand is for literary scholars who are actually interested in the workings of literature.6
I have been speaking only about poetics; in other humanistic fields there are no doubt different problems and solutions. But, whatever the specific field, it might be well to remember that apologetics is never a fruitful mode of discourse. Never apologize, never explain! I thus deplore those new MLA-sponsored National Public Radio programs (and I refused to do one) in which "we" (academics) explain to "them" (the public) what it is "we" do in our classrooms. At the same time, I take issue with such humanist jeremiads as George Steiner’s recent essay "The Humanities–At Twilight?" which argues that in contemporary technocratic mass culture, there may, alas, be no room at all for the humanities:
Democracy and economic-distributive justice on a democratic plane are no friend to the autistic, often arcane, always demanding enterprise of "high culture".... Add to this the failures, the collaborative treasons of the clerics, of the arts, of the humanities in the fullest sense, during the long night of this century in Europe and Russia. Add to this the fundamental doubt ... as to whether the humanities humanize, and the thrust of the crisis is inescapable. 7
Interestingly, Steiner’s elegiac essay never refers to a single work of art written since World War II: Adorno’s adage that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz seems to be taken as a given. This retro Kulturdrang strikes me as just as misplaced as Weisbuch’s "how-to" practicalities. One cannot kill the human instinct to make poetry–the German verb Dichten is apposite here–and to enjoy the poetry making of others: indeed, the study of poetry has been with us much longer than any of those current academic orthodoxies Steiner deplores, and it will continue to be with us. Some things, it seems, never quite collapse.
Let me conclude with a little Frank O’Hara poem that is nicely apropos:
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
A version of this essay was presented as a lecture at a conference at the Stanford Humanities Center called Have the Humanistic Disciplines Collapsed?, held the weekend of April 23, 1999.
1 See "The State’s Role in Shaping a Progressive Vision of Public Education,"Phi Delta Kappan (November 1998).
2 In a follow-up article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Weisbuch outlines more fully his plan for "aggressively promulgating the value of what we do in [the humanities]." The Woodrow Wilson's new project, "Unleashing the Humanities: The Doctorate Beyond the Academy," with a budget of about $100,000, will award grants to academic departments that "encourage students to interact with the world as part of their graduate training." A second program will award up to 30 grants of $1,500 each to support doctoral students who are using their training in a non-academic setting. The third program seeks to match top doctoral students with companies, schools, and other employers that can offer the "meaningful" positions outside academe. See Denise K. Magner, "Finding New Paths for Ph.D.’s in the Humanities," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 16, 1999.
3 According to the OED, literature (from the Latin littera, or letter of the alphabet) as "Literary work or production; the activity or profession of a man of letters; the realm of letters," was first used by Samuel Johnson in the Life of Cowley (1779): "An author whose pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature." The more restricted sense of literature as a "writing that has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect" does not appear until 1812. Literature in the sense of "the body of books and writings that treat a particular subject" is first found in 1860.
4 Here is a partial list of project titles at the Stanford Humanities Center for 1998-99: "The Pathological Public Sphere" (Mark Seltzer, English); "Ethnography before Ethnography: Fabricating Ethnographic Objects within Medieval Christendom" (Kathleen Biddick, History); "Oaxaca and the New World Baroque" (Cynthia Steele, Romance Languages); "Navigating Diaspora" (Donald Carter, Anthropology); "Desiring Machines: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice" (Robert Fink, Musicology); "Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Premodern England" (Ruth Nissé, English); "The Pro-Choice Mistake (And Another Defense of Access to Abortion)" (Laurie Shrage, Philosophy).
5 Aristotle, Poetics, translated by W. Hamilton Fyfe (Harvard: Loeb Classics, 1960), pp. 36-37. I have translated the word philosophoteron as "philosophical" rather than "scientific," which is misleading. Otherwise, I stick to the Fyfe translation.
6 Just as I was completing this essay, the Los Angeles Times ran a front page piece called "Answering their Poetic Calling," describing the new boom in poetry programs. "Nearly 300 universities," we read, "have established graduate poetry programs since the mid 1970s and the best ones are overflowing." See Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1999.
7 George Steiner, "The Humanities–At Twilight?", P. N. Review 25, no. 4 (March-April 1999): 23.
December 01, 1999
33 Min read time