Saturday, August 11, 2018

an Mbird piece on critical theory and academic ennui links to a Lisa Ruddick article that enjoins academics to consider why anti-"self" critical theory writing countenances what she regards as dehumanizing modes of sexuality

 
This Mbird contribution riffed on, among other things, a Lisa Ruddick piece about critical theories in the academy in which method is prized over humanism.  The Mbird contribution tended to focus a bit more on how theory and the herd instinct in literary style sucks the life out of love for things of which academics is intended to make a study.  But ... the actual piece referenced went another direction along its long path.  That ennui was the starting point but the path Ruddick took toward the end of her piece had a more pointed concern about what academic publishing was willing to publish and what this did or did not have to do with what might be endorsed "in real life".
 
The argument, tacit or explicit, that we do not have a "self" can be brought to bear in proposing that a Romantic conception of the "self" to be discovered or defended could be construed as a bourgeois result of capitalism and industrialization in which the "self" is a commodity to be discovered and/or sold has implications in what forms of symbolic combat have been taken up in the battle against capitalism. 
 
The first concern I'll quote about is that the dehumanizing element of the academy devalues the individual self via style in a way that can groom participants in academia to be used and to use not just in academic terms but in other ways.
 
 
 
Our profession’s devaluation of selfhood, passed from one generation to the next, softens members up for the demands the profession makes on their own selves. If it is “bourgeois” to care about your identity and your boundaries, perhaps you might throw your own identity and boundaries on the altar of your career. I am struck, too, by the fact that current scholarship reflects a strong bias toward noncommittal sex. Our journals offer scant encouragement either for communion with oneself or for abiding connection to a partner—both experiences that could offer leverage against the encompassing group.
 
In the pages of ELH, we read for example that “free love” is a “radical” answer to the monogamy that serves “a capitalist and patriarchal sense of property and propriety.” Or we find that in the Restoration, “resistance” to the bleak “disciplinary” regulation of sexuality was found in “egalitarian” public spaces where “Individual women’s bodies … all blend into one another, ultimately signifying only a space to divest one’s bodily fluids and slake sexual desire.” In another piece, we learn that a particular character’s rejection of “jealous, obsessive monogamy … challenges naïve notions of the endurance or singularity of … love.”
 
When the focus shifts to attached couples, high marks go to “depersonalizing [sexual] intimacies” devoid of “meaningfulness and personal relation.” In the meantime, there are many negative or skeptical representations of committed pairs. To select from a myriad illustrations, we read that “abstracted heterosocial coupling” is one of the requirements of “a sentimental polity,” and elsewhere that “Home is, of course, a disciplinary mechanism.” Or we read of “couplehood’s little platoon,” set within “the defensive provincialism of the family group.” Or again, within the “the middle-class home” one finds “the domestic sanctum of bourgeois order.” Correspondingly, the rare articles that view sustained romantic commitment as offering something positive to at least some individuals take a defensive tone, acknowledging all the standard critiques of “bourgeois romantic love.” Alternatively, they assume a safely historicist posture. Milton thinks that “sexual relations touch the soul as well as the body”; but then again, this idea falls within “the humanist understanding of companionate marriage.”
 
Each of the articles just cited has serious value as literary criticism. Yet when one masses all the work in ELH together, it is clear that our profession—for purposes of print—has a bias against one-on-one attachment. This attitude springs, of course, from a perceived need to question the privileging of the married couple within modern societies. But one possible real-world outcome of the steady stream of “depersonalizing intimacies” in our publications is to depress readers’ faith in the loving attachments that might give them some distance on their professional identities.

Ruddick stopped a bit short of suggesting that if this is the way academics write about sexuality and sex, or have written about it in the last twenty years, we should perhaps not be so shocked that the academy has been a breeding ground for sexual exploitation and predation which has taken up as its pretext a critique of capitalism and materialism and bourgeois values.  While the Mbird article discussed how academic theorizing can create a default tone of combativeness that wearies the soul and makes it hard to sustain a love for the topic you went into the university system to study, Ruddick's actual piece struck me more as a wake-up call to the ways in which ostensibly anti-capitalist critical theory has been employed by academics whose real world aims may not have entailed a real confrontation with market forces so much as an interest in attachment free chasing of tail.
 
I am aware of possibly sounding like a tub-thumper for monogamy. But the profession’s cynical attitude toward love is just one small aspect of its drive to flatten anything (except politics) that might nourish a human being with its aliveness. Our journals subtly discourage readers from believing that the world offers them a range of “integral objects”—a term the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas uses to describe any entity or experience whose unique form and vitality enrich our inner world.
 
To elaborate, our profession often speaks affirmatively of sex when it either “shatters” a person or violates social norms.[6] Any one lover could presumably be traded for another, so long as the requisite effects occurred. What is discounted is the idea of valuing a lover for the one being he or she is, with the inner richness and consistency that could make for an “integral” relationship. And while I have focused on the academic devaluation of love, I could as easily have considered the ways in which current criticism discourages readers from experiencing poems as integral objects, the ways in which it occludes the author’s mind as a potential integral object, and the ways in which it discounts the invaluable human capacity to experience life itself as an integral object.[7]
 
The greedy institution has a stake, altogether, in impoverishing its members’ object worlds. It promotes a hollowness, which can then be compensated with the satisfactions of status and affiliation within the group. Perhaps this is a tendency of all professional life. But when, as has happened in English, the soul-sapping quality of professional collectives finds an alibi in the anti-individualist ideology of left postmodernism, we have the conditions for quite a bit of mystification and malaise.
 
Ruddick has written in another article that the cultivation of interior life, spiritual consideration and an understanding of the self emerges in Buddhism in a way that, arguably, should force Anglo-American academics to stop insisting on what she regards as a quasi-Marxist post-critical theory canard that the ideal of the self is a Western bourgeois capitalist social construct.  There's plenty of non-Western religious traditions that discuss the self well before the emergence of the mercantile system or contemporary capitalism as we know it. 
 
I didn't quote that article or the relevant parts thereof here. But maybe a link will do.
 
I am still thinking that Ruddick soft-pedaled the implication that many of these academics are chasing tail and are using the post-critical theory jargon as a pretext.  That's a scabrous allegation to make about contemporary academics but if contemporary academics don't mind scabrous allegations about what those men who formed the backbone of the literary and artistic canon had in mind (getting laid, lording it over people, and being pompous self-aggrandizing asses) it doesn't seem so scabrous to suggest that the checklists and jargon used toward those ends may have changed in contemporary academia but that the contemporary academic pot may be calling the old dead academic pot kettle something ... .
 
I can hardly fault an Mbird contributor for linking to an article that's an interesting read.  But as with the link to a Claire Dederer article from a while back, (another article that inspired an Mbird piece where I couldn't help believing the contributor had substantially misread the substance of the piece they were referencing) my feeling is the contributor skimmed over things I considered substantial along the way to making a point that I wasn't so sure was substantial.
 
You would never be able to guess that the article Gunter links to has the following:
 
Finally, a small subset of work in ELH [the journal English Literary History] glamorizes cruelty in the name of radical politics, though this motif abates after 2006, perhaps because of a change in editorial leadership. The piece I find most troubling is an article on a short story by Henry James. This article proposes that if one faces a choice between having sex with children and protecting them, “perhaps one should let oneself desire the child, and—relinquishing the gratifications of protection—let the child die.” Sexually precocious children should “perhaps” be allowed a death of “innocence” that will supplant the pleasures of childhood with “other pleasures” delivered by adult lovers. James’s short story supposedly conveys this moral. But the lesson is said to apply in real life as well, wherever adults might be tempted to issue “calls for the protection of children.” The story is said to reveal “the dire results of protecting children from desire”—anywhere. For today’s anti-pedophile perpetrates the “potential violence” of “speaking on [children’s] behalf.”
 
There is a place in academe for scholarship that responsibly weighs the benefits and costs to children of sex with adults. But the present piece offers no empirical findings. Instead, it manipulates postmodern commonplaces to argue that people who try to shield children from “the depredations of influence and seduction” are imputing to children boundaries that they do not have. Children cannot be “corrupted” sexually because no child has a core of selfhood that has not already been thoroughly penetrated or “influenced” by society and language. We are asked to acknowledge “selves’ constitutive corruption.” For the mere phenomenon of influence is apparently so destabilizing that it “throws into question the attribution—particularly to oneself—of substantive depths, of ‘inner’ selves or meaning behind appearances.” A haze of familiar antihumanist abstractions thus eases in the practical conclusion as to the pointlessness of trying to protect children’s “‘inner’ selves” from violation.
 
One wonders who really believes in this kind of thinking. (And I would hardly assume that the author himself inhabits, for purposes of real life, the values here expressed.) But when the author’s book-length treatment of the same ideas appeared, even more explicit in its brief against the criminalization of pedophilia, colleagues did not criticize it in print. The book was evidently a hot potato, as it went virtually untouched by reviewers, pro or con. What would be so bad about saying that something is wrong here?

Again, nary a word about this concern on Ruddick's part in the essay that linked to her work. 

If academics sometimes see reason to believe that the jargon of critical theory has been appropriated toward the ... theoretical ... case that children should not be protected from what in a non-academic context would be construed as patently predatory actions that's a more specific and substantial criticism of directions post-critical theory academic writing has taken than "I just don't feel like I love poetry like I used to".  Yes, that's certainly a part of the overall concern Ruddick expresses but it seems she's made a case that there's a kind of pernicious sophistry that's possible in which anti-capitalist and anti-middle class polemics are formulated which seem like a mask for the same old uses and abuses that those milieus ostensibly hide and perpetrate.  There's more than one proverbial cloister in which sophistry in the service of grooming and predation can occur seems to be the subtext of Ruddick's point as quoted.  Along the way she makes a passing note, in a note actually, that some of those who would invoke Marx against the existence of the self have very likely misread Marx on that topic. 

Ruddick's through-line is that she became troubled by a decade(s)-long trend in academic writing through which authors advocated for what she considered dehumanizing anonymous approaches to sexuality with the pretext that these were liberating people from bourgeois strictures or from the constraints of capitalism.  You'd never imagine that was what she was discussing at some length from the Mbird piece, which read as a fairly steady illustration of how people who go through college can feel fatigued by the jumping through hoops and wonder if they love the topic they've studied as much as they thought they did.  Okay, I guess "we've all been there" if we made it through college ... but I thought Ruddick's point was more pointed and troubling for what she was aiming to confront about what could be taken as a sophistry deployed in the theoretical defense of what in other contexts would be construed as exploitive and predatory behavior if these things were actually done to people, not just presented as theoretical musings on the evils of capitalism. 

It's not that predation with a patina of defensive jargon hasn't been employed in churches, obviously, but Ruddick's long piece invites us to consider that the jargon through which such evils can be perpetuated or defended can look different from cloister to cloister  That's the impression I got from reading Ruddick's piece even if that may not have been what she set out to write about, and the gap between what I sensed her argument was and what Gunter thought its take-away was has been ... food for thought.

Let's play with the idea that people whom Ruddick interviewed felt benumbed and she shifted from that to her own qualms about the ways in which academics employed sophistry to rationalized sexually exploitive practices as being symbolically anti-capitalist to make an implicit argument, that people can find something suffocating about academia because too much of it traffics in the sophistry that in a more traditionalist religious understanding (whether we run with a Christian, Jewish or Buddhist understanding of things) could be construed as calling evil that traditionally considered good and finding a way to call that which was considered evil a transformative good. 

Now I would hesitate to say that "art makes the world, and it can also break us", because I'm skeptical about what a Marxist like Adorno used to call bourgeois art religion.  But Rebecca Solnit's point about how the subtext of Nabakov's Lolita can't be skipped to without grappling with what's in the text is hardly a point to dispute.  If there's a problem that white guys with an academic bent can have it may be a problem that also emerges in queer readings of popular culture because it's a difficulty that may be pervasive in Anglo-American letters at this point, people skip the text so swiftly in order to expound at length on the perceived subtext that nobody talks about the text.  It's the complaint Chris Eigeman's character has in the Whit Stillman film Barcelona, too many people talk about the subtext of the movie without discussing the text.  That is, I think, the basic problem that happened with Gunter's piece in relationship to Lisa Ruddick's piece. 

I have to admit I'm a bit troubled by a gentle trend in some Mbird contributions to jump from a text to the perceived subtext in a way that may demonstrate why academia can feel like a draining place.  Of course I do love to read academic books.  One of my favorite reads in the last five years was Elements of Sonata Theory (and I've been on an Adorno binge)!  I also knocked out all of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, though I have some criticisms to make of it.  So I trust regular readers understand I'm not "anti-intellectual" when I suggest that the academy has not come to terms with the ways in which it endorses exploitation under the guise of opposing exploitation.  It's easy to rail against the financial one percent and I understand that, but that doesn't mean there isn't a cognitive one percent or that the cognitive one percent doesn't rationalize its own predatory and abusive behaviors that its members do not see as all that bad, really, because they are mainly thinking of the sins of some other ruling caste.   Back when I was considering seminary I got some advice to avoid the Ivy League altogether because it had devolved well beyond the point where there was any love of neighbor, in its place was a love of self better known as love of "the guild" or the guild mentality.  I never had the means to go to seminary as it was but I did take that warning to heart about where the academy had managed to go that I was given twenty-five years ago.  To go by the concerns expressed about where the academy has gone or is going it sounds like this is a cross-generational worry. 

That scholarship may have devolved into an airless and vindictive show of jargon-tossing and intra-guild secret handshakes is certainly something to worry about if you're not sure you want to soldier on into grad school.  That's absolutely a fair concern.  But I also think a more pointed and troubling observation Ruddick made about the academy as she's seen it got glided over along the way to that subtext about law/gospel stuff.

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