what the heck is henry farrell talking about?

…or “Why doesn’t Crooked Timber pay attention to people who actually study language and literature for a living?”

A recent Farrell entry on Crooked Timber defends collaborative literary blog The Valve against a critique offered by Cultural Revolution, a critique that, in part, points out that funding for the Valve came from the conservative Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. In fact, on that organization’s website, the Valve is described as an ALSC “discussion forum.”

Look, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I haven’t really read much of the Valve, although it looks interesting. However, I do think that Farrell is being naive when he fails to realize that buzz words and phrases like ìimagination,î ìshared literary culture,î ìserious,î and ìclassicists and modernistsî are loaded weapons in the hands of culture warriors. Here’s an analogy: if you were to stumble across a political website advocating “states’ rights” in America, you’d have an easy time figuring out which political party they were likely to support. You would have a similar reaction to such phrases as “culture of life” and “ownership society.”

Let’s say I asserted that “culture of life” was a suspect phrase used by Republicans to try to link a wide variety of otherwise disparate programs, from infringing on civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism to opposing a woman’s right to determine the course of her own pregnancy. Now let’s say someone responded to my assertion by saying, Who could object to establishing a culture of life? What kind of sick person opposes life? We would assume that person was pretty ignorant about the current state of American politics, no?

See, language doesn’t exist in in a vacuum. Words that may appear harmless when taken out of context carry a significant amount of weight when understood within their original context. It’s an obvious point, I know. I don’t mean to patronize you, dear reader, and yet here we are.

I am not going to jump into the argument taking place in the comments thread. (I did ask Henry a couple of questions in that thread and he ignored me; frankly, it’s not a bad policy to ignore people who use the word “Zombie” in their name.) No, my concern is with the framing of the debate as established in Henry’s original post. He makes reference to

The hostility of many literary theorists to the notion that they ought connect with a wider culture, or that they are, in the end of the day, critics of cultural forms that have a value in themselves apart from the tropes that their methodologies can uncover

Here’s one question: Who are these hostile literary theorists? I mean, I have a PhD in English, and I have no idea who he’s talking about.

He also cites Scott McLemee on the annual meeting of the MLA as evidence of a “deeper malaise” infecting literary studies. (Sidenote: does Crooked Timber get $5 every time they mention Scott McLemee?)

After McLemee’s quote, Farrell writes that the criteria of literary scholarship mean that literary scholars lead a miserable existence:

You spend your life studying work which you arenít supposed to enjoy on its own terms; too high a degree of enthusiasm is anathema, unless itís couched in political or critical terms that disconnect the value of the text from the text itself.

This is news to me, and I’ve been in the field he’s talking about for over a decade. (Note that Farrell is a political science professor.) The thing that everyone who works in language/literature departments knows and that apparently everyone who doesn’t refuses to believe/acknowledge/notice is that the annual meeting of the MLA is about jobs.

I’ll say it one more time, so you don’t miss it this time: The annual meeting of the MLA is about jobs.

That’s why there’s a malaise there. Desperate people are hoping to get hired. Exhausted people are interviewing the desperate people who are hoping to get hired. The rest is the tail on the dog that is the job market.

If you want to see the excitement at the heart of what literary scholars do, go to the specialist meetings. People who are Medievalists, Renaissance scholars, eighteenth-century scholars, Romanticists, Victorianists (and on and on) have their own annual, professional conferences. Jobs are not being advertised and sought there. No malaise is there.

The image of the blinkered literary theorist talking jargon-riddled nonsense to other blinkered literary theorists in a Mr. Magoo circle jerk that ignores the concerns of “real people” living in the “real world” is a tired, old, (and whether Henry Farrell wants to believe it or not) conservative stereotype.

But why listen to me? I’m just an English professor, so what could I know about, you know, the study of language and literature? This brings me to my second question:

Given that Crooked Timber so often has posts on literary matters, why are there no CT contributors who actually work in departments of literature?

I have been consistently bothered by the CT posts on the state of contemporary literary studies (most of which are, I think, by Farrell and John Holbo), and I do wish they would listen when others object to the way they characterize what we do. With the possible exception of Holbo, they are not qualified to comment.

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9 thoughts on “what the heck is henry farrell talking about?

  1. I stand with you wholeheartedly. THANK YOU for taking this on — I don’t even look at CT any more because it’s so irritating. I glanced at the Valve the other day only because a commenter linked to it. Not only do I not recognize the vision of literature departments that these guys (mostly it’s guys) propound, but I don’t see why they feel it’s their terrain to comment on. Do you see me ranting about poli sci departments?

  2. One of the things that frustrates me so much about the conversation you link to is the denial that literature can have its own methodologies, goal, techniques, etc., as an academic discipline. (History gets this too, somewhat.) After all, EVERYONE can read a novel, right? So everyone who’s not a lit scholar can still weigh in on the merits (or not) of what lit scholars do. It’s just the “grown-up” version of what students do when they assume anyone can take an English (or history) class and if they don’t do well it’s b/c the prof didn’t “agree” with their “opinion” (b/c it’s all about “opinions”, right?). No one assumes they can walk into a biology department and do what biologists do, whether as a professor or as a student. But “anyone” can do literature (or history). It’s incredibly frustrating.
    And I completely agree with your comments about the MLA. It’s like the AHA – no one goes there fo sessions. You go to interview, be interviewed, or catch up with old friends. It’s not about intellectual excitement; that’s what the specialist conferences are for.

  3. I agree with what you’ve said here, and I certainly think that Henry is full of shit in this particular post. That probably comes from what he perceives as an unfair attack on the Valve, and I can sympathize with that to a certain extent. Speaking only for myself, I post there; and I don’t agree with any of the ALSC’s foundational principles, much less those of the Bradley foundation. And I don’t think that you can assume the entire site is somehow going to be a priori tainted.
    I’ve posted one quirky thing about literary theory/studies and will continue to do so. There’s a diverse group of writers there, and I think it’s worth reading.

  4. Another Item–Politics!

    I’ve posted another rumination over at the Valve. But I want to say a few things about the controversy surrounding the site and its sponsorship by the ALSC.
    CultRev pointed out here that the ALSC receives money from the Bradley foundation, which is…

  5. I’m not worried about the people at CT writing about the state of literary criticism. We get tons of attention in the mainstream media too (no other discipline gets nearly as much attention). I think we need to just take the heat, and not crow about qualifications and what not.
    Anyway, the people at the Valve are basically all in English departments. It’s the first time it’s been tried; I’m sure it won’t be the last.
    No one has told us what we can or can’t post. If anyone does, I’m out of there.
    One long term goal of The Valve is to build up a community that might enable the start a kind of bloggy journal: Articles submitted and reviewed; reviewers’ comments are attached to accepted articles; and all articles will have comments. If we could do it, it would be cool.
    Another much more short term thing, which you see in Jonathan’s post on the word “ludicrous,” is direct reference to journal articles, including things behind Project Muse and other limited databases. It might be hard to sustain (given specialization), but I think this is also something different. Right now if something interesting comes out in Boundary 2, it comes out, but there isn’t really a public place to discuss it.
    The best way to do it would be to invite the author of a given article to join in on the discussion of her/his article, and defend and/or explain the piece under discussion. Could be interesting…

  6. As I’ve said, I think the Valve is an interesting project. I wish you well.
    I do not propose that we “crow about qualifications.” However, I wonder if other academic specializations are expected to react placidly to so many uninformed commentators telling them some variation of “You know what your problem is…?”
    If you don’t have an advanced degree in the subject (English, History, Economics, Computer Science, Political Science, Philosophy…whatever), then don’t be surprised when people who do react negatively to your pontifications about their field of study.
    The contributors to Crooked Timber are obviously a smart lot, but when it comes to familiarity with contemporary literary studies, we’re seeing a stubborn unwillingness to admit their shortcomings.
    Frankly, it’s coming across as arrogance.

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