Dissertating with a Hammer: An Idiot’s Generalizations on Scholarship and Activism

I begin with two passages that will be the epigraphs to my dissertation:

Few critics, I suppose, no matter what their political disposition, have ever been wholly blind to James’s greatest gifts, or even to the grandiose moral intention of these gifts … but by liberal critics James is traditionally put the ultimate question: of what use, of what actual political use, are his gifts and their intention? Granted that James was devoted to an extraordinary moral perceptiveness, granted, too, that moral perceptiveness has something to do with politics and the social life; of what possible practical value in our world of impending disaster can James’s work be? And James’s style, his characters, his subjects, and even his own social origin and the manner of his personal life are adduced to show that his work cannot endure the question.

The would-be specific literary intellectual who wants to work for social change will … have to fight off two demons of self-doubt: one from the orthodox left, who will tell him that his work is bullshit and that real political work lies in the organization of the workers; the other from the ultra left who will tell him that he must connect his work on traditional texts directly to the “real” situation, our contemporary political situation, or risk total apolitical rarefiction. My answer to these demons is that genuine political work for the Henry James scholar, as Henry James scholar, becomes possible when contact is made with the activity of James’s writing, with all possible emphasis on its act.

The first, by Lionel Trilling, appears in his famous essay “Reality in America,” while the second, by Frank Lentricchia, comes from the opening chapter of Criticism and Social Change. Both of these critics are not just the tacit heroes of my dissertation, but more importantly, they are writers that enabled the development (if we can say as much) of my intellectual identity; they, in other words, shape how I  understand literature, art, and its role in the world. Lucky coincidence that they choose Henry James, the overt hero of my dissertation, as their exemplary artist isolated from the political and social world.



Beyond anecdote, there are several reasons why I begin with these two quotes. In terms of “research” (something I will come back to), my study of James is also a study of romantic aesthetics – or the post-Hegelian romantic imagination more specifically – and their political and social relevance for both arcane literary scholarship and intellectual life more generally. Broadly speaking, to what use can we put Henry James, and the legacy he inherits and transfigures, in our contemporary world? Another anecdote clarifies the importance of this question. I remember having a conversation with my grandfather a few years ago in which he (a child of the 1930s Popular Front) chastised me for not studying Dalton Trumbo, W.D. Howells, Jack London, and reading Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds, a book he boasts about having quasi-plagiarized from in college. He, in Lentricchia’s formulation, is the orthodox left: “Who cares about aesthetics? Henry James is beautiful words about nothing,” he memorably said.



My grandfather’s position is not anomalous and I believe much of the general public, if not our community of scholars, would agree. Hence the lack of “traditional single author studies” or traditional studies of any kind being written by graduate students let alone leading critics in the field. Would anyone dare write Wordsworth’s Poetry these days, a text celebrating its 50th anniversary? And if they did, how could justify an institutions financial backing? Anybody well versed in the Trilling, Lentricchia, or the other major critics of the twentieth century would think these questions absurd (as the humanities, and their social significance, is self-evident, especially to scholars working in the romantic tradition), but that does not stop J. Hillis Miller from beginning each book and essay he writes with same refrain:

Can reading Adam Bede and Middlemarch today be at all justified, in this time of irreversible global climate change, worldwide financial meltdown, with a new financial bubble already building, and the bamboozling of the American electorate … by the media, advertising, the politicians, and hidden right-wing contributors into voting in ways exactly contrary to their interests? What use is “reading for our time”? The Republicans … [and so on and so forth]

When such a sobering critic, one who exemplifies the act of critical reading more than any other, repeatedly questions the importance of his craft, maybe it’s time to listen? Of course, I admit that while reading the essays, books, reviews, and interviews that begin in the same manner I detect, or least hope I detect, a hint of irony.



But there seems to be an additional demon of self-doubt that haunts academics. One tied to the bureaucratic hierarchies that govern how we train graduate students and propagate our “profession.” I must preface these remarks by stating I speak from my own personal experience, interacting with peers at two different departments in which I was a graduate student, and at various conferences and institutes in several different areas – “fields” – of literary studies. In other words, take all apparent generalizations with a grain of salt as I recognize, like William Blake’s generalization that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.”



That being said, considering all the external pressures on graduate students (the job market, money, family, etc.) there are internal pressures that ask literary interest adopt to scholarly decorum and that intellectual life conform to academic conventions, that, for example, our dissertation must contribute to a “field” already shaped by preordained debates. Can you write a dissertation that simply studies or reads an author, let alone an article? Of course, those who seek and succeed in changing or shifting the debates become the chosen celebrities, but that only sets the table for their peers and the next generation. How can we dissertate with a hammer, like Nietzsche, and destroy that table?



Nothing I am saying here, to my mind, is entirely new (though I know of no Foucauldian study of the deleterious effects of academic institutionalization). The students who I meet, and who I usually befriend, feel these pressures; those whose work I generally dislike are engrained in this ethos. In this regard, it shouldn’t be surprising that, along with Trilling and Lentricchia, I gravitate toward critics who are not only acutely aware of this predicament, but who attempt (or attempted) to make it visible in order to engender change. The author of my first quote failed or at least felt that the transformation occurring in society was inevitable. The author of my second quote said to hell with it. But both of them were, like Paul Morel in Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, individuals who “[felt] the business world, with its regulated system of values, and its impersonality, and … dreaded it”; or at least their writing gives off that feeling.



As you might expect, Academic Fordism (does the metaphor work?) can be inimical to revolutionary impulses, or activist desires. On the one hand, we have the example the opening essay to Barbara Johnson’s A World of Difference (“Nothing Fails Like Success”) in which she interrogates the institutionalization of deconstruction: its transformation into an ism. On the other hand, we have Lentricchia’s “ultra left,” those who tell the critic he or she must connect his study of Henry James to the real world political situation. Let me provide you an example of the latter by quoting Emory Elliot’s presidential address to the American Studies Association:

In May of 1970, I was a doctoral student in English at the University of Illinois preparing to write a dissertation on seventeenth century English literature. When the United States bombed Cambodia, and four students were killed by National Guard soldiers at Kent State, two hundred of us grad students gathered outside the English building in silent protest. In anger, one student called out: “How can we be studying literature at a time like this?” I thought that I could justify studying literature at such a time because I believe that literature teaches us about dimensions of society and of ourselves in ways that often penetrate more deeply into our consciousness and our lives than other vehicles of knowledge … But I had to ask myself why I was studying English literature when I did not understand my own country—a country that boasts about its values of freedom and equality—while protests, demonstrations, and urban uprisings were necessary for citizens to gain basic rights of social justice and while millions of its citizens were deeply opposed to the government’s foreign policies. My move to American literature and American studies was therefore in part a political move—though it could not have been more personal.

I sympathize with almost every word of Elliott’s. Writing this a week after the failure to indict in Ferguson and the same outcome (which was announced hours before I began typing) in NYC, I hear many demons of self-doubt. Yet writing is a catharsis. It is the critic’s own [creative] act, the “would-be specific literary intellectual[’s]” act, of coming into contact with, in the case of my work, James’s act. Thus, I would ask Elliott (whose work on the Puritans I deeply admire) why he could not have leveraged his anger at the world by reading Milton with the same fervor in which Blake read him?



I am currently reading Crimes of Art and Terror (by Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe) which is, among other things, a book about the political efficacy of romantic vision:

The desire beneath many romantic literary visions is for a terrifying awakening that would undo the West’s economic cultural order, whose origin was the Industrial Revolution and whose goal is global saturation, the obliteration of different. It is also the desire, of course, of what is called terrorism. Transgressive artistic desire – which wants to make art whose very originality constitutes a step across the beyond boundaries of the order in place – is desire not to violate within a regime of culture … but desire to stand somehow outside, so much the better to violate and subvert the regime itself.

All the significant literary theory (a generalization!) expresses this aim. I think of Foucault’s and Derrida’s indebtedness to Bataille and Blanchot. Trilling’s diagnosis of modern literature’s anti-establishment ethos, Lentricchia’s reading of Wallace Stevens’s gendered economic literary anxieties, Geoffrey Hartman’s discussion of radical art, and Harold Bloom’s theory of influence anxiety as “antithetical criticism” that could “open received texts to … the sufferings of history.” Not to mention the important scholarship of someone like Johnson, who, as she admits, bites off the hand that feeds her by exposing the patriarchal qualities of Bloom, Hartman, de Man, et al. (This is a highly abbreviated list!!! and there are many postcolonial, feminist, and Marxist theorists – in addition to other fields – I could also list; see my previous essay on Spivak’s reading of Arnold and Shelley as another example)



But where, I ask, is the legacy of that transgressive artistic desire in scholarship at, well, the MLA? We do “research.” I am asked to define my “research agenda.” If I was in England I would be a “research student” not a graduate student. What is my research? I read books and discuss books with others. I debate with a friend the political efficacy of Schlegel versus Kierkegaard. I throw my Herman Melville and John Keats into the face of his Whitman. I still have no idea what research is … am I supposed to find an archive? Well I lack the financial resources of a fellowship or a privileged institution but I also prefer to read Melville than maritime archival material. Am I supposed to measure my scholarship in terms of progress? Well my dissertation emerges out of two epigraphes dated from the 1940s and 1980s. Does research imply book history? I don’t care where Billy-Budd came from, I am just happy I have it to read and teach. What about biography? Melville was a deeply flawed human being, yes, but as Nietzsche says: “geniuses of [t]his sort seldom have the right to understand themselves.” If the act that Lentricchia speaks of is something akin to Blakean vision, where, within the current and emergent academic clergy (those coming of age in the late 80s and 90s), are the critics who do not recover some lost history of the past, unearth a previously repressed discourse, or diagnose and debunk ideology, but create and transfigure the world in which we live through the power of their own creative imagination? Does criticism feed off the object of its study, for life and sustenance, like Yeatsian bread crumbs, or is it parasitical in the sense that M. H. Abrams implied many years ago? (I see Abrams critique of deconstruction as anticipating certain forms of historicism while deconstruction, at its finest, would be a parasite like Yeats was to Blake was to Milton). These are generalizations by the barrel full. Maybe my reading is too limited since my refusal to specialize means I am bit spread too thin amongst the various “fields” inhabiting the 19th century. Maybe I go to the wrong panels or read the wrong journals. Alas, a hammer is a dangerous tool when placed in the hands of an idiot!



A scholar who acutely discusses these issues  is Mark Edmundson. Devouring his essay “What I Was Young at Yale” elicited much admiration and enthusiasm, but also a bit of sorrow and something like nostalgia for an era in which I came too late. For example, Edmundson writes of his first encounter with Foucault:

How many times did I stare with raw admiration at the picture of Michel Foucault on the back of my hardback edition of Discipline and Punish? I gazed at the shaved dome, the tightened jaw, the (apparently) titanium glasses, and the eyes behind them that looked as though they could burn steel.

When we read Discipline and Punish today there is no picture of its author. In fact, the book has been repackaged, along with all of his other works, in a new edition. It doesn’t feel revolutionary. It is almost forty years old. And what it resulted in, as we are all too aware, is The Novel and the Police, Desire and Domestic Discourse, The Historicity of Romantic Discourse and a library’s worth of books that apply its genealogical method with ever diminishing returns. Do any of us feel the rush of excitement, the “raw admiration,” when reading these classics of academic scholarship? Does the picture on the back of Novel and the Police “burn steel?” (In this regard I should make reference to the irony that oozes from the Lentricchia photograph on the back of Criticism and Social Change – as well his discussion of this irony in several Critical Inquiry articles).  What are the sublime works of scholarship that we can’t put down because they engender anxiety, dread, but also pleasure and hope? What works of scholarship, in other words, bring out emotions like our favorite poems and novels? I just taught Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain which moved me to tears. I read, along with it, an essay called “James Baldwin’s Exile” in Henry Sussman’s Idylls of the Wanderer that beautifully illuminated the destructive force of Baldwin’s hammer. Sussman, that is, demonstrates the profound imaginative energy that emerges from Baldwin’s text.



With the semester wrapping up I am currently trying – and failing – to read William Blake with any sort of coherence. Yet despite my lack of an understanding of his symbolism it is, I think, symbolism as Kenneth Burke saw it, as symbolic action. I keep my Complete Prose and Poetry beside my bed, on top of a twenty backed-up issues of the Nation, and read what I can. What attracts me to Blake and the romantic tradition, which I first came to through Melville and Baudelaire, is its anger, its rage, or its attempt to tame these feelings as it desires to raze (or raise?) the world. When I hear papers at conferences that try to make me aware about “climate consciousness” or the latent imperialism in, well, anything, I think to myself: I am aware of climate change, I am aware of imperialism, aren’t you preaching to the choir? Scholarship that possesses an activist impulse seems merely to diagnose problems that any intellectual is already aware of … do I need to read E.M. Forester to have a better understanding that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis? Of course authors such as he represent environmental problems in interesting ways, but this seems to be a bit reductive, a bit like an opportunistic use of Forester. Research, I believe, leads to diagnosis. Criticism, I want to hypothesize (though I generalize!) is vision.



At the end of his beautifully written book Why Teach?, Edmundson attaches a chapter entitled “Under the Sign of Satan: Blake in the Corporate University.” After essays discussing the troubles of higher education and his own personal beliefs about the purpose of reading, the liberal arts, and so forth, Edmundson inserts an essay that juxtaposes his meditations on teaching at UVA Inc. with a narrative of Blake’s simultaneous need for institutional support and rebellion against it. We all know colleges and universities are in a troubling place, but by writing such playful criticism Edmundson enables us to ask to what extent can we channel Blake’s creativity as we attempt to ameliorate our condition? How, his essay seems to suggest, does Blake respond to the circumstance that we find ourselves in now? This is what Lentricchia means when he discusses coming into contact with the act. Scholarship is a form of teaching, its pedagogy from scholar to scholar. When Edmundson teaches Blake, I assume based on his many essays on the subject, he asks his students to respond to the truth of his vision. When he writes about Blake, he asks us, scholars, the same.