Sunday, April 17, 2005

Valiant Attempts to Bring Lit Theory to a Wider Audience

I admire the work they're doing over at the Valve, particularly as one recent post pointed me to John Holbo's Socratic (or rather, Wildean) dialogue (pdf) that attempts to explain why literary theory has evolved in the directions it has. The crew over at the Valve has been fielding some harsh criticism from people who love literature and believe almost all theory to be politically correct musings from sinecured twits. With such opening premises, these commenters have been, well, difficult to debate with.

Literature professors are a favorite punching bag of the blogs; a recent post by Dan Drezner criticizes the admittedly ill-considered public comments of an associate professor of English on Saul Bellow's work, and the virulence of the comments is just typical, if, it being Drezner's site, comparatively well-put. Lit professors are handy synecdoches for the general loathing of academics, with the added bonuses that:

1. Lit professors themselves are insecure about their exact disciplinary boundaries
2. Lit professors and grad students, in the guise of introductory writing and intro to English lit instructors, are often the first or only contact non-humanities students have with contemporary thinking
3. Lit professors teach stuff that a lot of people do for pleasure (even more so than art professors or communications professors)
4. The unfortunate irony of literary theory's being so difficult to read when it's often about or meant to explain beautiful writing
5. Other disciplines in the humanities rally round for academic freedom but feel free to dump on literary theory and Literature professors, departments, and the discipline as a whole.

I could go on, but that'll do for now. The Valve, then, is fighting an uphill battle on the internets. Fortunately, however, Lit professors are also ably represented in the blogosphere by the stylish Michael Berube whose smooth readings of rhetoric don't so much explain literary theory as demonstrate its power and versatility. So don't give up, guys! I think when some of the dust settles, folks might come to realize that lit theory is one of the most important tools we have of understanding our crazy, spun-out-of-control, media-saturated times.

Digby once made this case admirably:

This means that we are on the right track because understanding post-modernism, relativism and the rest is the single most important key to understanding how the right is operating right now. Any party that can win the presidency by saying that hand counting uncounted votes is inherently unreliable compared to the machines that failed to count the votes in the first place cannot be said to be a party that doesn't understand relativism. Michel Fouccault is a much better guide to modern politics in the radical Republican era than John Dewey could ever be. We should be dragging all those ivory tower Derrida-ites out of the classrooms and hiring them at think tanks to deconstruct Republican rhetoric. (In fact, the most valuable person in the Democratic party may be Michael Berube )


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