|Texts and Contexts|
On the occasion of the department’s “Texts and Contexts” faculty conference, I’ve decided to slip into polemical mode in order to speak about what we do vis-à-vis texts and contexts as professors of English and of the humanities, institutionally and systemically. I’ve paraphrased my title from a famous, or relatively famous, dictum of the British psychiatrist/psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, a theorist of early childhood psychic development, among other things. Winnicott wrote of having been asked to describe the criteria for good mothering—this was in the early 1960s, so good parenting regardless of gender was of less moment, and to be labeled a “schizophrenogenic mother“ was still a fearsome possibility. It is not possible to be a “good mother,” he opined, since that accolade entails an enormous, implicit, social value judgement, an idealization of maternity at the expense of the mother’s own being as an independent self. All that mattered, Winnicott found in his clinical practice, was being a “good-enough mother,” one who could shepherd a child psychologically through the shoals of dependency and individuation without losing her or his own self-determination.
So I am partly facetious about offering the notion of “great-enough” great books as an answer to a dilemma of our field and of the humanities generally, in a moment where we can espy the culture wars redivivus on the horizon, yet not entirely so. The slippage in “great-enough” as versus simply Great could serve as the same kind of apotropaic antidote to an absolutist position of value that good-enough mother does in the realm of family values. I’d like to argue that the result of the first round of the culture wars in the 1980s and early 1990s, coupled with important upheavals in criticism and theory within the discipline, and political and cultural changes across the society, left us with a value problem that goes to the heart of how we describe our field and its purposes. The uneasy consensus over the importance of literary and critical theory which obtained in English and the humanities for two dynamic decades has broken down. Some might argue that this has occurred due to the instability or even the superfluity of the many discussions grouped under the heading of “theory,” from postcolonial questions to post-structuralism, critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theories of the text, postmodernism, cultural studies, and so on. That is very far from being my own estimation, and also is a situation of intellectual, historical, and political specificity too complex to take up here.
What does appear to me to have survived the implosion of these many theoretical paradigms is a base-line understanding, which cuts across all levels of the critical practice and pedagogy of English and the humanities, that something is terribly wrong with value. This notion was implicit in, and often helpful to, an entire spectrum of literary criticism from disparate and often contradictory sources: those who wished to enlarge a supposedly rigid “canon,” relativists like Stanley Fish and Barbara Herrnstein Smith who declared evaluation to be a mere willow-the-whisp effect of rhetorical persuasion or interpretive communities, post-structuralists who saw “value” as the merest guise for textual deconstruction, to the many who sought to expand the genres and texts of English studies, myself included, to include formerly unvalued or “lesser” works in film, television, and cultural media of all kinds. Now that various cudgels have been laid down, a strangely torpid lull has set in upon the profession. The dust has cleared, and almost the only shared item of critical or professional belief left in the arena is the suspicion of value, a shared residual fear that any allusion to value reeks of elitism, or hegemony, or canonicity, or atavism, or pure bad faith. The only cadre of the profession who feel secure trumpeting notions of value are the same people who decried any and all ideas that came down the theoretical pike as outrageous, unseemly abominations, blots on an escutcheon of pure, unadulterated Value. It is precisely that group who retained the “great books” and “literary value” discourse over the years, because no one else wanted to keep it. Just as ceding “family values” to the right was a monstrous political error, so in my judgment is turning over all questions of value and even literary worth to the fatuous truth squad who claim evaluation—actually, reiteration—as their mission.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me disclose. My first two years of college were spent as a Southwest Scholar at St. John’s College, the Great Books college, Santa Fe New Mexico branch. As an Albuquerquean female intellectual, the idea of college as an homage to and journey for truth offered an appealing and indeed urgent sense of mission. Total immersion in Greek and in French language, in the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, in literature from Homer to Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Virgil to Dante, Chaucer to Shakespeare, Goethe to Austen, Dickens to Proust. To say nothing of Euclid, Thucydides, Galen, Copernicus, Darwin et al. Of course the great books at such a place are not taught as “great-enough.” Plucked out of context altogether, whether this be critical or historical context, the texts of the Great Books lived together in an empyrean realm, impervious to change, uninflected by how they had been read over time. This museum approach to literature, philosophy, political theory and so on began to be stifling and maddening; I sat long hours in the library the college had grudgingly provided and carried out what were seen as insidious projects, reading literary criticism and cultural critique, and a whole host of the dreaded “secondary sources,” for god’s sake. My apostasy got so bad I had to transfer to the University of Chicago to complete my B.A., a place where historicity and critical theory were at least countenanced.
Having said this, for all my unhappiness with the uncritical way the Great Books were regarded in that setting, there has been nothing in my now fairly long intellectual life that has not emerged from and depended upon having read in massive quantities and with meticulous seriousness and even ardor those great-enough great books. In fact, that has been the very basis for every critical question, political theory, or cultural analysis I have subsequently lodged. It is not necessary to accept the ideological packaging of “great books” as the epitome of universal, trans-historical human transcendence, for which read white European male superiority, as their only garb; if they are valued instead as “great-enough,” that is, as works still open to consideration, then they become a means through which and upon which one can trace a convoluted and conflictual history of critical thinking and intellectual affect.
Here I hope to counterpose in brief two important thinkers on the idea of value and “great books,” where the second in the pair has prevailed institutionally and in the rarefied heights of what is left of theory: I refer to Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital,” derived from his ethnographic and social scientific studies of French education and culture, has been taken up wholesale by literary and cultural studies in the U.S., and has seemed to fit neatly into the abyss left by the “break-up” of theory in the face of cultural studies and multiculturalism, among other forces. To a degree this influence by Bourdieu has been salutary in the extreme, since his notion of cultural and/or symbolic capital allowed for the tracing of patterns of social hegemony through cultural objects and artifacts, where power is surely imbricated. Where it has been pernicious, I would say, is where an entire profession, in this case English, has more or less adopted the cultural capital argument as a means of dismissing the concept of “value” as anything other than a class ruse or divisive means of conferring cultural and class “distinction.” The tautological and rather vicious circularity of Bourdieu’s argument is rarely faced head on, so eager are we to disavow the cultural capital, if it be so, we have all absorbed. Bourdieu sets up a calculus of cultural capital for a middle and upper middle class whose only relation to Bourdieu’s reified culture is as conspicuous consumers, yet Bourdieu’s own stance as, among other things, a literary critic and intellectual would appear to have arisen ex nihilo—not out of texts and contexts, but from his own rarefied head. Cultural capital in this sense is what other people are bluffing with and crassly exchanging, never oneself—it’s a bit like Tony Tanner’s comment that pornography is really other, less attractive people’s eroticism; my point is not, however, only that Bourdieu is hoist on his own petard, it’s that he is not being fair to the complexity of cultural capital. In his recent short book translated as On Television, Bourdieu vociferously declares television to be an intellectual and cultural wasteland, joining American media critics and mandarin humanists from Neil Postman to Jacques Barzun—but judged a wasteland by reference to what? Well, to authentic intellectual and cultural pursuits—great, truly great books and all that. Seen through the lens of an attack on mass media and television in particular, Bourdieu’s system of “distinctions of taste” are suddenly needed to decant the “capital” out of cultural capital, in order to show how television devalues what, in his estimation, has unshakeable and lasting value attached to it. The aporia or contradiction of all of Bourdieu’s work is on display in the tortured effort to reclaim Value as the distinction—in a good sense—which would set literature and philosophy apart, for example, from what Bourdieu sees as the pathetic maunderings of television.
Gramsci, by contrast, has been celebrated primarily for his extraordinary insights into what he referred to as “civil society,” coining a term which has made it possible to understand the social and cultural mechanisms by which forms of hegemony are maintained. His distinction between organic and traditional intellectuals has remained interesting if vague, especially insofar as he claims that all people are intellectuals in one or the other of these senses, yet overall, his magnificent Prison Notebooks are reduced to these two insights. The rich predication of the manuscript itself on literary models from Machiavelli and Shakespeare to D’Annunzio, Dostoevsky and Verdi is erased, as is its preoccupation with the pivotal importance of intellectual and aesthetic experience for everybody.
What has largely dropped out of Gramsci’s legacy in the form of its contributions to critical theory and cultural studies alike is his argument that all education should begin in a traditional manner. One might read this as a rather cynical version of Bourdieu’s cultural capital argument, i.e., that the Italian peasantry of which Gramsci was a member needed traditional, great-books-based education in order to compete with the educated classes for political leverage. This would not be entirely untrue, except it leaves out Gramsci’s transcendent talent for retaining evaluation and believing in the intellectual benefits of the transmission of enthusiasm and appreciation for their own sakes. His discussion of the education of the boys of Sardinia and Sicily, for example, takes entirely seriously the idea that “philosophy begins in wonder.” The appropriate degree of wonderment cannot be generated by using texts as mere instrumental means for the acquiring of cultural capital, nor can wonder arise strictly from the consideration of what already surrounds one culturally. A defamiliarization or strangeness is achieved by employing, among other active pedagogies, great-enough books whose strangeness becomes a site for the wonder of thinking anew. Gramsci was for many years a cultural critic for political newspapers and journals, and his criticism and reviews are instructive in that they by no means equate evaluation and appreciation with the mere circulation of cultural capital. By his lights, opera, literature, contemporary art, theater, philosophy and so were composite cultural fabrics that by no means simply “excluded” or ignored those who did not come by higher education as a class birthright. Gramsci makes the leap to the liminal level I have been alluding to by the phrase “great-enough great books”—what is great about them is not a timeless grandeur, but instead their ductility, their ability to become a locus for new ways of thinking and, above all, for ways of situating the self. Gramsci took Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and transmogrified it, writing “know yourself, know all the strands and texts and histories that constitute who you are and have been over time.” His gloss on Plato only intensifies the liberatory modernity of his own work; Gramsci reads the present through Plato and his great character, Socrates. The Prison Notebooks is, among other things, a rewriting of Plato’s Myth of the Cave from The Republic, the extraordinary visionary passage wherein Socrates, in trying to explain the indirect pathways necessary to the discovery of Truth, envisions human life as a dark imprisonment. Prisoners chained in a cell see the flickering shadows cast by a fire behind them they can never turn to see; Socrates invokes a phantom puppet-show next, “projected” onto the cave wall as if it were a scrim, not understood as a “re-presentation,” but as all there is. Only the prisoner capable of breaking the chains and emerging out of the cave can know the nature of truth, yet that prisoner will be blinded by the sun’s rays due to his enforced blindness before. Only by being guided through oblique representations of what “is,” in appearance and yet in reality too, can the shattered human become aware.
Such representations—books too—are lifelines for the prisoners, not the shackles that enchain them. Without equivocation, and far more openly than Bourdieu ever could, Gramsci declares, as one example, Machiavelli’s The Prince to be a great book, great because of its undeniable resonance in the history of political thought, its richness in connection with Italian thought and aesthetics, and its porousness as a “great-enough” great work to a recasting in twentieth-century Marxist terms as an entirely new meditation that depends nonetheless on the greatness of the underlying text. The Prince doesn’t articulate the future as Gramsci wills it to become—its very flaws of insight make it possible, through a book darkly, to see into and express that futurity.
Gramsci’s sense of what I have termed “great-enoughness” is fully dialectical. That too is what is often forgotten in our latter-day confusions over value, canon, and text. I should first make the observation, self-evident though it may be, that the discourse of value prevails in every cultural context one can name. If you are a devotee of slasher films, you know that there are extraordinary slasher masterpieces and idiotic slasher rehashes, and the community of slasher film fans and critics never censors its value judgments by assuming that the mere act of evaluation and even ranking constitutes an inappropriately hegemonic activity. In addition, to value and appreciate the genres of mass and popular culture requires for the fullest intellectual delight that they be seen dialectically and contrapuntally; it is as crucial to have read Moby Dick and Great Expectations and Leaves of Grass and Notes from Underground to watch The Simpsons with an appropriately acute critical sensibility and a sense of revelatory wonder as it is to know comic strips and teen flicks.
On that contemporary note, it is not incidental that Meadow Soprano, the daughter of mobster Tony Soprano on the eponymously titled, fabulous HBO series The Sopranos has just entered Columbia University for her freshman year, a year which includes her obligatory inculcation into the Columbia core curriculum course “Literature and Humanities.” The great books of Lit Hum hover literally over this season of New Jersey doings at the Bada-Bing, on the Camden waterfront, in Satriales pork store’s back room. The second episode of the new season found Meadow, home to do her laundry and to exchange some coruscating repartee with her increasingly racist dad, playing mentor to her dim brother Anthony Jr. as he struggled with the time-honored high school assignment of glossing Frost’s Stopping in Woods on a Snowy Evening. With the finesse of Socrates as he awakened the slave Meno’s recognition that somehow the boy slave already knew geometry, Meadow dialectically enabled AJ to see that the speaker in Frost’s poem is confronting not only a snowy evening, but the white void of death. AJ exclaims, and he has lots of high school tutelage to back this up: “But I thought black was for death!” Meadow, on the fly and half out the door, throws back gently “White, too.” The enforced analysis of a canonical poem is tedious for AJ, who seems headed for Montclair State and not Columbia, but even through his sullen adolescent rage we can watch his interest be piqued by the changes poetry is capable of ringing on established categories of thought and feeling. His wonder is visible; so too is the dark irony that his own father, and family, are poised before that white screen of snow, the void of death just as it is the TV screen, just as it is the words of Frost’s poem on the white page, and summons too the blank page of AJ’s unwritten paper as it does the world of death lying on the family threshold. That great-enough Frost poem, and Meadow’s interpretive gloss on it, spill out into the text of the Sopranos as an elegiac woodland grace-note, a tiny example of the ways that great-enough works tangle with and underlie the seemingly anti-Great Books universe of suburban Jersey mafia wars.
AJ and Meadow may be the children of a waning Mafia, but they are upper-middle class and destined for college. What we find as professors today in privileged academic milieux like the University of Virginia is that the so-called works of cultural capital are not held in common possession by our middle- to upper-class students. These works are not why they are here as opposed to elsewhere, at least not in large part. Even the so-called “elite” class of students finds great-enough books transformational, and students who are outside the window looking in can see great-enough books as a kind of food. Much of the abnegation of value and even of literature tout court (I am reminded here of Andrew Ross, who has been quoted as saying “I hate literature”) has been done by people who themselves are steeped in great-enough books, literary and otherwise. Having heard my former colleague Professor Ross cite Coriolanus to describe the behavior of another colleague, Balzac and C. L. R. James and Hegel to boot on other occasions, is just one tiny bit of evidence that if one scratches the surface of an avowed value-hater, one usually finds an extremely well-read person, somehow unable to justify passing along those works along with many others not in the charmed circle to one’s students and peers. Nor is teaching those “great-enough” texts in my view simply succumbing to a form of academic noblesse oblige. It is not likely that in the absence of works we can unashamedly call “great-enough” the full measure of non-canonical, critical, or cultural studies works can be transmitted or appraised or even enjoyed. For UVa students and others the situation Gramsci noted as common for the peasant boys he knew and was one of obtains. A semi-traditional education in the great-enough great books, taught not with reverence but with energy, not with piety but con brio, not as sacred scripture but as weird, shabby, indirect, often wrong yet illuminating great-enough books.
To close with an anecdote and a brief moment of visual pleasure I hope can serve as a parable for the “great-enough” position I am recommending. In teaching a course called Theories of Media this semester, the key text through which we have attempted to think about mediation, let alone theories of media, is the brief passage from Plato’s Republic aforementioned as Socrates’ Myth of the Cave. Plato’s allegory of knowledge, mediated through Socrates’ myth, of course touches on the scene of representation implicit in every literary and cultural text, and its occlusions. Yet only through the auspices of this “great-enough” philosophical dialog is the resonance of works far removed from even literary precincts truly visible. I cite a reverberant clip from Preston Sturges’s great-enough film Sullivan’s Travels, ostensibly a screwball comedy about the misfortunes a Hollywood director experiences when he goes “on the road” undercover as a hobo in the American Great Depression, to learn to see things as the “little people” do, and make what he hopes will be a formidable expose of “the truth,” that is, the poverty and despair and oppression of the American underclass. His aim is to create a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?,a work of quasi-socialist realism and all-American pathos. For complicated reasons Sullivan’s identity is actually “lost,” and he finds himself imprisoned in a Southern chain gang, unable to convince anyone who he “really” is. Gradually Sullivan makes common cause in suffering with his fellow prisoners, black and white and all of them poor. The one break in the cruelty of their lives comes when a neighboring black Baptist church allows the prisoners to be brought, wrapped in chains and shackled together, to watch a cartoon projected onto a makeshift screen placed over the altar. Before the men enter, the film makes the amazing choice of sequestering its audience for a long period with the black parishioners and their charismatic minister, who sings a solo version of the spiritual “Let My People Go” to end the worship and signal the entertainment. Sturges’s film is so nuanced a treatment of Plato’s myth of the cave that it can superimpose racial oppression upon it, and link that state to unjust imprisonment for the crime of being poor, just as it reflects on the flickering shadows cast by cinema on the social screen. The screen writ small in this moment of self-reflexivity contains a Pluto cartoon; in the audience is Sullivan, who feels supercilious about the cartoon, yet cannot help breaking into laughter along with his fellow prisoners, a laughter of solidarity, laughter as a reprieve from knowledge of a truth too dark to bear. Sullivan, once restored as we know he will be to his Hollywood mansion, decides that the “little people” he now shares an identity with want entertainment, and not lugubrious, self-serving “brotherhood” films. He eagerly plans his next opus, to be titled Hey-Hey in the Hay-Loft, and the film fades out. Yet the film we have seen is Sullivan’s Travels, not an entirely frivolous bauble; it depends on Plato to make its revelations about American racism and class inequality. The oblique route to a truth too stark to bear comes through a glorious work of popular culture disguised as a 30s road movie—have I mentioned Veronica Lake is in it?—that takes its narrative climax from Plato, laying out a philosophical meditation on the nature of representation, and fiction, and film, and their efficacy in the face of human social imprisonment. The reflected light off the screen in Sturges’s cinematic church is great-enough to accomplish this; built on a great-enough great book that lends its great-enoughness to the task of making truth wonder-ful.
|TEI markup by Heather May Johnson|