One of the great things about writing for The New Criterion, I imagine, must be that argument and evidence are completely optional. I've noticed that dogmatic pronouncement usually suffices for publication in that frustrating journal.
Case in point: James Bowman's article "Why is reading at risk?" from the online only summer 2004 issue. Bowman's essay is his response to the new NEA study on the literary reading habits of adults in the U.S.A.
Just in case anyone is wondering, I should add that Mr. Bowman and I are not related.
Here's the opening paragraph of Bowman's essay:
"Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue," writes Dana Gioia, the Endowment's chairman, in his introduction to that lament for the decline of literary reading in America. Maybe so, but they're prepared to put up with the report's sad news, if the alternative is wading into controversy. It's easy to shake the head and cluck the tongue about the fatal allure, particularly for the young, of television and the Internet, but what seems to me to be the primary cause of the public's indifference to literature namely the way it is now being taught in schools and universities cannot be mentioned, for fear of antagonizing the professoriate. As George Will put it, "Professors, lusting after tenure and prestige, teach that the great works of the Western canon, properly deconstructed, are not explorations of the human spirit but mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies."
Ah, yes, George Will. He's certainly an authority on the intellectual habits of the professoriate, now isn't he? That man has quite a range of talents, doesn't he?
Okay, now we know where we stand. Remember, we're dealing with The New Criterion. It's probably required prior to publication that all TNC authors sign an affidavit affirming the proposition that left-wing professors are to blame for everything that has gone wrong since the 1960s.
Let's go back to that first paragraph. George Will is not a reliable source of information on the pedagogical and scholarly habits of academics. Consequently, Bowman ought not to have offered Will's statement as an authoritative pronouncement. That he did so indicates that his article is an exercise in ideological ax-grinding.
Keep in mind that this sort of criticism is not directed at all professors. Whenever you hear conservatives complaining about left-wing professors, they're really restricting their attention to the humanities. And they certainly don't intend to criticize the political orientation of any of the faculty in the business schools.
I've never met a professor who has explicitly said to me that the great works of the Western canon are mere reflections of power relationships and social pathologies. Nor have I ever met one who defended a claim that implied such a reductionist view. I've known or made the acquaintance of professors in many different departments across the humanities: English, French, German, Italian, history, philosophy, sociology, art history, religious studies, and so on. No one I've met has ever expressed allegiance to the view that Will insinuates is standard-issue intellectual gear among academics.
My point isn't to deny that some academics subscribe to this view, but neither Will nor Bowman bothers to identify a single guilty party. (But let's not be too hard on Mr. Will, since Mr. Bowman only quotes a single sentence from an unreferenced source.) Instead, we are presented with a sweeping generalization about the professoriate. I've given you reason not to accept the generalization. Don't believe it.
Even the most devout worshippers of the Western canon will admit that some literary works reflect, in some fashion or other, power relations and social pathologies, if only because power relations and social pathologies sometimes make up the explicit content of some works that we still read and take seriously. But the quotation from Will makes a stronger claim, as is indicated by his inclusion of the word 'mere'. That little word does a lot of work.
Will means to imply, I think, that the reduction of works to mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies undermines any claim whatsoever that they might have on us. That is, we don't have to take their overt content seriously because they originated in the nastiness that is human history. As soon as we identify the relevant bit of originating nastiness, we can then dismiss the work because deep down it's really nothing more than an expression of this nastiness.
Let's return to Bowman's article. Here's how he expresses his agreement with Will's view as I sketched it in the previous paragraph:
But now I think it is time for [Mr. Gioia] to speak out against a kind of literary Dutch elm disease that is blighting, and perhaps forever destroying, so much beauty for generations to come. This is the pernicious influence among our academic scholars of the arts and humanities of what we might call neo-Marxism. Marxism itself may be and often is included in neo-Marxism as they used to say in the dying days of the old Soviet Union, the only Marxists left were in American and Western European universities but the essential thing about the tendency is its unspoken assumption that all human endeavor is reducible to power relationships. As Lenin put it: Who/Whom? Who is the oppressor and who are the oppressed? Who is the exploiter and who are the exploited? Once the world has been organized according to this pattern it becomes easy to repeat it endlessly.
Thus, just as the classical Marxist identifies the bourgeoisie as oppressors and the proletariat as the oppressed, for the Third Worlder the oppressors will become the rich countries of the West, and the oppressed the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America many of them now not so poor; for the feminist, the oppressors will be men, and the oppressed women; for the homosexual, the oppressors are sexual moralists, the oppressed any would-be libertines on whom they would "impose their values." You see? It's easy. The world is full of victimizers and their victims, if you only know where to look for them. And so it is that literary criticism, like history, sociology, philosophy, economics, theology, and, indeed, all the humane studies, becomes an exercise in identifying both oppressor and victim beneath the smokescreen of God and religion or duty and honor or love and laughter that the dominant culture always throws up to disguise its various and inevitable adventures in viciousness and exploitation.
Let's grant for the sake of argument that some professors actually do this, that is, that some professors obsessively identify victims and victimizers. But they do a lot more than this. They also talk about plot, character, metaphor, symbolism, and the like. Even if you find the whole victim/victimizer schtick annoying as I do, I might add, although sometimes a particular work calls for it it's still possible to learn from scholars who have recourse to it. You just have to be patient.
But we have to proceed on a case-by-case basis. Even if some work originated in some bit of nastiness, it still has to be argued that the nastiness somehow infects the work. We can't simply assume that it does.
I greatly admire Wagner's operas, in spite of the fact that Wagner was a terrible anti-Semite. Why? Because his anti-Semitism is not present in his operas. I deny that it can be found in them. Others have tried to prove that it is there, but I disagree. They haven't convinced me.
I can't say why Wagner's anti-Semitism isn't present in his operas, since he wasn't a casual anti-Semite. Wagner was very serious about his anti-Semitism. I can only sigh with relief that it's not to be found in his operas.
Heidegger was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party, in spite of which I greatly admire Being and Time. I've read the book several times. I've even taught it, and I've begun to write about it. I can't find Nazism in it. I've looked. Fortunately, it's not there. Once again, others have said otherwise, but they haven't convinced me.
Enough academics are aware of the difference between the work and its origin to realize that the reductive proposition that Will attributes to them is thoroughly objectionable. Yes, of course, many academics have recourse to power relations and social pathologies when talking about art, literature, or philosophy. Either they haven't learned how to pay attention to the work at hand, or they don't care to do so. Or perhaps they were never bright enough to understand great works in all their complexity. Consequently, such academics usually have little of interest to say.
I've come across a lot of film criticism that exhibits the tendencies that Bowman rightly deplores. It's not very helpful stuff. In fact, it's even worse than most literary criticism. Trust me.
Why is reading at risk? As you would expect, Bowman blames the academics. Here's how he understands the likely outcome that encountering these academics has on young readers:
. . . if, by some fluke, such a reader arrives at a university with some spark in him of love for literature, still unextinguished by his high school English courses, it is sure to be doused in short order by professors whose attitude toward their subject is not one of the reverence and admiration that even middle-aged people can remember in their own teachers, but one of mere contempt.
This is all wrong. Bowman is so captivated by his own thesis that he can't even identify what young readers will really do when faced with neo-Marxist academics who belittle the great works of the past.
Young lovers of literature will never stop reading, Mr. Bowman. They'll stop taking literature classes. That's what I did.