One way of describing the trouble with the Humanities today is that those who are clever are wrong and those who are right are dull. Last year, the appointment of my friend, former student, and Anthropoetics stalwart Tom Bertonneau as Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC) inspired in me a moment of optimism about the possibility of an organization’s combining rightness and cleverness. Sadly, my experience of the ALSC annual meeting in New York illustrates the polarization of humanistic thinking, or what is left of it, between a Left inspired by what it imagines to be a flight from the Western tradition and a Right mired in passive worship of this tradition.
(There is an interesting historical connection between GA and the ALSC. One of the ALSC’s leading lights is Roger Shattuck, now retired after a long and distinguished career as a professor of French. Best known for The Banquet Years, a colorful study of early French modernism, Shattuck is no theoretician. But in reaction to the emergence of deconstruction after 1968, he articulated the ideological position that is the semi-official credo of the ALSC: that literature is grounded in orality and remains so even in our literate culture. I first heard Shattuck enunciate this position in a talk at UCLA in 1980. What I perceived as its intellectually retrograde nature so provoked me that, in Paris the following summer, I wrote the article “Differences” (MLN 96: Spring 1981) that outlined the program of what would become Generative Anthropology.)
Both Left and Right unknowingly commune in confirming the sterility of Western culture at precisely the moment of its greatest triumph. Today the Western market-system with its ethic of exchange is in the process of integrating within itself–which does not mean swallowing up–the totality of the world’s cultures. The new millennium begins in the dawn of a global civilization. Under such conditions, there is no need either to accept at face value the resentments of the post-colonial world or to circle the wagons around the masterpieces of Western civilization. The West’s victory in the Cold War put an end to the rivalry of the two world-systems; there remains only one, and whatever modifications it acquires from the practices of other lands, nothing can change the fact that it was invented in the Judeo-Christian West.
Hence there is precious little chance that the cultural masterpieces of the society that created this system will be forgotten. The multicultural excesses that stimulated the formation of the ALSC are already receding. But this does not obviate the need for theorizing both the specific mediations that permit communication among what may already be considered subordinate elements of a world civilization as well as the general anthropological truth revealed by the triumph of the Western ethic: that the human condition is essentially one of meaningful exchange and that the gradient of history corresponds to the acceleration and proliferation of this exchange.
I regret to say that most of the clichés about the phallogocentric patriarchy are true of the ALSC. It is dominated by a small phalanx of elderly scholars insulated from the general membership, whose suggestions, if the business meeting I attended is any indication, are met with condescension and largely dismissed. Its annual conference deliberately eschews the fragmented Modern Language Association (MLA) format of ten or twenty sessions going on at once in favor of a far smaller number of plenary sessions; the whole is never divided into more than three subgroups. But this praiseworthy unity comes at a price: the few speakers are chosen in advance by the all-powerful program committee rather than, as at the MLA, by independent chairs of the separate sessions. Junior scholars, not to speak of graduate students, need not apply. My own invitation to speak in the Drama subgroup was a product of my relationship with Tom. The original title of my talk was “René Girard’s Theory of Tragedy.” For the first time in my career, I was forced to abandon a title for fear of controversy, I think less because of Girard’s theoretical stance than simply because his stance is theoretical. For the conference emphasis was exclusively on the literary, the maximally literary. Foreign literatures were represented by Goethe and Cervantes. The other two panelists in my drama session spoke about Shakespeare. A session on the question of literacy dealt not with a single mega-author but with all of them together; the panel’s literary component was a description of Columbia College’s Great Books course.
I found the average level of intellectual sophistication quite a bit lower than at the MLA. Many of the participants seemed to have been drawn to the ALSC less out of scandal at the excesses of multiculturalism than out of fear of literary-critical theorizing of any kind. The vast bulk of postmodern theory, beginning with deconstruction, is, to be sure, on the Left. But the mistrust of Girard shows that the intellectual problem is deeper than the political. Since 1968, English and, to a lesser extent, other literature departments have been roiled by deconstruction, feminism, cultural studies, queer theory, postcolonial theory… Most of this theorizing is indeed victimary thinking, but its most frightening aspect to someone with a traditional literary background is its constant reference to an extraliterary–philosophical, sociological, linguistic, psychoanalytic…–universe of thought not formerly explored in literature departments and not easily absorbed by someone out of graduate school. This situation generates a quite understandable demand for authoritative, not to say authoritarian reassurance that these theoretical discourses, dwarfed by the great literary and philosophical works of the Western tradition, may safely be ignored.
A sizable group discussed for nearly an hour the relative merits of the literate and the oral without ever mentioning Jacques Derrida, whose attack on the myth of orality in De la grammatologie (1968) put this opposition at the center of the postmodern critical debate. And as though awakening from a twenty-year slumber, I once again heard Shattuck extol the virtues of the oral, declaring that the ultimate purpose of literary analysis in the classroom was to prepare students to read the work aloud. And once again, this Rousseauian profession of faith in the virtues of the unmediated voice made a Derridean of me. Sublimely indifferent to the impracticality of reading aloud in class anything much longer than a sonnet, Shattuck would have public readings of the literary classics take the place of the village festivals in the Letter to D’Alembert on Spectacles as means to reestablish a lost Gemeinschaft.
My disappointment with the ALSC may best be understood through a brief detour through political analysis. The American political configuration in the post-Cold War era breaks down roughly into three elements:
1. A traditionalist, moralistic, “paleoconservative” Right, highly suspicious of modernity and of the market system that sustains it. This group’s increasing association with religious fundamentalism is not without analogy to the violently anti-market religio-political movements in less developed countries.
2. A Left that remains openly hostile to the market and to the free circulation of human desire in general, which it views in victimary terms. Human degradation of the environment being the ultimate proof of the inherent destructiveness of the exchange-system characteristic of our unfortunate species, the “victim” is increasingly found in nature rather than humanity.
3. A neoconservative Center-Right favorable to the market. This element is particularly suspicious of the victimary thinking of the Left, but it is also uncomfortable with the moralizing of the Right.
Clear parallels may be drawn between the first two of these positions and the traditionalist vs postmodern dichotomy accepted by both sides as defining today’s critical debate. But there is no third, pro-market position on culture because culture itself, even the most marketable culture, is essentially hostile to the market. Cultural phenomena impose their value in the marketplace by preempting the decision of the market, by opposing their version of the unique sacred to the reciprocity of exchange. To accept the market’s decisions about culture is to renounce any given set of cultural meanings; to take a cultural position in favor of the market is to refuse to take a cultural position in the strong sense of the term. Hence it is really no surprise that, seeking in the ALSC the cultural equivalent of neoconservatism in the political sphere, I found only intellectual paleoconservatism.
GA, as a minimalist anthropology, a metacultural rather than a cultural theory, is neutral in the debate between traditionalism and multiculturalism. To recognize the historically superior–that is, less sacrificial–ethical aims of high as opposed to popular culture is not to presume that these aims constitute high culture as a transhistorical form–the Great Tradition–that evolves only in its content. There are no guaranteed heirs of the Great Tradition today. Only the marketplace can reveal to us what are henceforth the viable forms of culture, which is not to say that their importance can be measured by this week’s or this year’s receipts.
There is a clear analogy between this minimalist position and the neoconservative preference to let the market decide. But even if we grant for purpose of argument that a neoconservative cultural politics (for example, skepticism toward the public funding of cultural activities) is implicit in GA, this would still not imply any particular position with regard to which cultural phenomena to consider as significant. GA is culturally neutral because its vision of the human is ethical before it is esthetic. But those who feel strongly that they have a stake in what is taught in literature departments and in how it is taught cannot accept this benign neutrality. They will come down on one side or the other rather than sit back and await the verdict of history, by which we mean nothing more than the process of human exchange.
I should no doubt have understood all this before the ALSC meeting. But my experience is just one more demonstration that one best learns the value of things, be they goods or ideas, in and from the human exchange-system itself.