Trickle-Down Texts

December 15, 2010

In economics, the “trickle-down effect” refers to the phenomenon in which a costly good becomes accessible to more people as it loses singularity and status. In politics, it’s a popular explanation for why tax cuts to the rich ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also an interesting question to consider in relation to academics.

For the purposes of this argument, what I’m calling the “trickle-down effect” is a phenomenon used to justify the ongoing relevance of theoretical study in academics.

True, the average Joe may not benefit from Professor Doe’s extensive knowledge of dark matter and particle physics, but he will benefit from the implications of her research for nuclear weaponry and international relations.  If he takes her introductory physics class, he may learn something about force that will help him build a better bookshelf. Some day, her research may lead to an enormous breakthrough, and in the meantime, it’s justifiable to those who dole out funding to the department because some, well, particle, of that knowledge trickles down to a “useful” level.

Math and science are natural bearers of this logic. But does the “trickle-down effect” apply to literary study? Or, more broadly, to the humanities? To answer that question invokes a host of other questions about not only the purpose of literary study, but the purpose of teaching literature. Here goes.

Literary Study and Theory

One of the reasons I find literary theory appealing is because it breaks down a barrier between conversations about the content of literature and conversations about, for lack of a better term, “real life.”

I would be the first to agree that discussing literary characters as if they are real is delightful. Beginning to studying fantasy as if it were utterly strange to our world frees our thinking and can produce thoughtful consideration of the similarities and differences between them.

However, as much as we like to think of books as windows onto a world we’ve never experienced, those “windows” get fogged up by the limitations of language, the other literary texts the author is using as building blocks, the author’s biases and intentions, and our own preconceptions.  To my mind, an important goal of literary theory is to draw attention to the fog on the window.

Literary Study and Teaching

When it comes to teaching, at an introductory level it’s about developing a set of skills, a way of approaching the world. Scientists begin with the scientific method; literary scholars also have (often unwritten) methods.

For me, those skills include close reading — paying attention to the details of a passage, the language, the images; thinking about context; identifying patterns and links to other works; articulating ideas verbally and in written form.

Quo Bono?

As I’ve said before (see “Literature For…“), those skills do have practical relevance in a wide range of fields. In that sense, I suppose you could call them evidence of a “trickle-down effect.” After all, a student may struggle to read Fanon or Spivak and yet recognize that teaching Shakespeare in India in the nineteenth century had political implications. And perhaps the next time she looks at a newspaper, she’ll ask herself what stories did not receive coverage, how the story may have been shaped in transmission, and by whom.

Are the benefits from these skills more difficult to measure? Yes. Are they less tangible? Probably. Are they less important? I would argue that the answer is no.

Then again, this is my career choice I’m discussing.  These are questions I have the luxury of considering, and my answers do not provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or  better health care for the sick. Does that mean they’re not valuable? No. Does it mean they should be kept in perspective? Yes.

Given the fact that I have vested interests in this discussion, my perspective might be just a little skewed. Or is it? To quote the indomitable Paul Harvey, “That’s something to think about.”


Vendler on the Arts

November 16, 2010

Tonight I’m reading Helen Vendler’s lecture “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar” in preparation for her visit to the university as part of the celebration of American poet A.R. Ammons, a Wake Forest alumnus. The 2004 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities draws on the poetry of Wallace Stevens to propose a more central role for the arts in our understanding of the “humanities.”

Our culture cannot afford to neglect the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage. The training in subtlety of response (which used to be accomplished in large part by religion and the arts) cannot be responsibly left to commercial movies and television. Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation–through the arts and their interpretations–of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination. Art can often be trusted–once it is unobtrusively but ubiquitously present–to make its own impact felt. A set of Rembrandt self–portraits in a shopping mall, a group of still lifes in a subway, sonatas played in the lunch–room, spirituals sung chorally from kindergarten on–all such things, appearing entirely without commentary, can be offered in the community and the schools as a natural part of living. Students can be gently led, by teachers and books, from passive reception to active reflection. The arts are too profound and far–reaching to be left out of our children’s patrimony: the arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics. Like other complex products of the mind, they ask for reiterated exposure, sympathetic exposition, and sustained attention.


Literature for…Counseling

January 11, 2010

It all comes down to words.

Reading a book and counseling someone through a period of grief may seem to have little in common, but both practices depend on words.

Many works of literature — poetry like that of Dylan Thomas or Derek Walcott, novels like those by Arundati Roy or Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo, plays like Greek or Shakespearean tragedies — are built around a central trauma or psychological breaking point. The words that construct their narratives are concerned with how humans deal with traumatic experiences.

Even as the characters come to grips with their situation or are broken by it, the narrative structure — how the trauma is portrayed — is also a way for the author and reader to make sense of tragedy.

Just as individuals deal with trauma in different ways, literary works also vary. Some express the unspeakable nature of trauma. The source is never identified, and tragedy is evinced only in what is never said. Others use an effusion of sensation and words in an attempt to bury the source–to forget. Some lash out. Others internalize. Some pretend indifference. Some seek answers. Some choose despair.

While a counselor may offer coping mechanisms and encourage a healthier response, his or her tools are predominantly words. It is up to the individual to choose a course.

In a similar way, works of literature cannot replace or force change in a reader, but they can offer perspective. They can offer catharsis or hope. They can offer alternative models and paradigms.

This is not to say in any way that novels should replace a conversation with a caring and skilled counselor: literature can offer hope, but it is equally capable of feeding despair. However, I think the links between counseling and literature are worth considering for several reasons.

First, as a reminder that authors, readers, critics, and teachers can have a real impact on others through the words they choose, especially when dealing with the experience of trauma.

Second, as a reminder that dealing with tragedy (whether global or personal) involves deciding how to tell a story: it is a verbal process as well as an internal one, requiring a listener as much as a pharmacist.

Finally, to suggest that our stories are not meant to be told in isolation, and to recognize the need for relationship and community in dealing with our own and each other’s periods of darkness and grief.


Literati on the Decline?

January 2, 2010

Who cares?

It’s a simple question, but one I’ve found to haunt graduate study in English. Is what we do meaningful? What gives it meaning? and Who decides? are three big questions for which I would love to have an answer…but do not.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen “The Decline of the English Department,” by William M. Chace, the recipient of a “Sidney Award” from New York Times columnist David Brooks, for the first ProfoundNet of 2010. This essay examines the wax and wane of the humanities in higher education. Here’s a snippet:

With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

As a disclaimer, I firmly believe that lovers of literature exist not only in higher education or professional classrooms. Nor is it necessary to have a graduate–or even undergraduate–degree in order to appreciate literature.

However, I do think the state of higher education in the humanities reflects certain characteristics of society at large that are troubling.

I agree with many of Chace’s claims. Trends toward utilitarianism or theorization have fragmented and weakened literary studies. In today’s economy, financial considerations are a valid concern in the humanities. And although I am less willing to separate literature from cultural and socio-political concerns, or to isolate British/American literature in a closed curriculum, I too am frustrated by the difficulty of defining literary studies.

Like Chace, I’m also hesitant to promote simple solutions.

With caution and some skepticism, Chace lists changes under consideration in academia: increased emphasis on teaching rather than research for tenure; greater recognition for the teaching of rhetoric and writing; renewed appreciation for literature’s power to inform, to delight, and to persuade; and preservation of literature as a distinct field.

What I would like to see is a treatment of literary study that is diverse but purposeful:

  • That denies neither the influence of biography, intent, history, and material culture on writing, nor the way language works outside of authorial intent.
  • That acknowledges the influence of literature on politics, culture, and identity but does not lose sight of its unique properties.
  • That analyzes and theorizes the textual characteristics of literature and culture together but does not deny the pleasure of reading.
  • That seeks to foster thought and growth on an individual level through teaching as well as reading and writing.

In 2010, although I’m realistic enough to keep my expectations limited, I hope to shape my personal studies, as much as possible, with similar aims.

Thanks, Dr. Chace, for a thought-provoking essay.


Literature: Quid Est? (II)

October 10, 2009

Lately, I’ve been exploring the questions, what is literature? and what does it mean to study literature? There’s so much great stuff to think about.

Another thought-provoking angle comes from a 1994 TIME article “Hurrah for Dead White Males!” by Paul Gray. Gray addresses literary scholar and critic Harold Bloom’s ideas about the purpose of literature.

In his book The Western Canon, Bloom argues “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

The article’s author suggests that “Such guidance was once the province of religion, and it is ultimately the religious experience that Bloom seeks in secular writing.” He quotes Bloom again: “Since I myself am partial to finding the voice of God in Shakespeare or Emerson or Freud, depending on my needs, I have no difficulty in finding Dante’s Comedy to be divine.”

The instinct to seek truth — or, as Bloom says, to seek  meaning and religious experience — in literature is, I think, somehow human. We are granted a glimpse of something bigger, grander, in truly powerful works of literature. (C.S. Lewis might have called it sehnsucht, fulfillment tinged with longing.)

Unfortunately, the nature of literary language (unlike the quality of mercy) is often strained between an attempt to mimic reality and an awareness that language is insufficient for even this task, let alone for describing Truth.

I am repeatedly brought back to the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his theories of the Real. Lacan defines the Real as that for which we long, but which we can know only as the lack or gap we experience in the symbolic (language-mediated) world.

I wonder, then, if it is wiser to understand literature not as containing truth (which supposes truth to fit into the human mind and human language and would be a small truth indeed), but as pointing toward truth, truth being always just out of reach of explanation.

If so, it is a problem, unfortunately, that my blog is doomed to share.


Literature: Quid Est?

October 3, 2009

This weekend, a professor at my university is hosting a discussion group on literature and literary language. The prospect has gotten me thinking even more about literature as literature: what it is, and what it means to study it.

As I’ve read further, I encountered one thoughtful perspective from Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute. It starts with this post, What is Literature Anyway?. Kern asks,

“Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls?

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.”

Here Kern addresses the question of canon and “Great Books,” about which I have mixed feelings.

To me, setting up a select few works as “great” literature involves claiming an absolute standard that is, in its relationship to literature, vague and imprecise. Like it or not, these definitions are also closely linked to systems of power, and focus almost exclusively on the literature of the western world.

It seems to me that if great literature is based on great truth, that truth will not emerge only in the West, or, to quote the cliche, in the writings of “dead white males.”

On the other hand, without some judgment of what is true and valuable, meaning becomes generic, nothing more than an arbitrary construct; and I find that conclusion no more satisfying than the first.

I wonder if there is a place for acknowledging the presence (and absence) of quality writing, truth, and beauty in literature without categorically eliminating works that range outside the traditional canon.

As usual, my next question is, if so, what would that look like?

Lots of food for thought here. More to come…


Doctor, Patient, Poetry

September 15, 2009

Being sick has very few advantages that I can name. Literary enthusiast that I am, I would not subject myself to illness simply to come upon insight about literature. However, it can happen.

Having been sick recently, I was reminded today how much of medicine is reliant on, first, self-diagnosis, and second, the communication between doctor and patient. As a result, the doctor’s role is far less different from a literary scholar’s than you might think.

The doctor can rely on certain objective (if all equipment functions and is used and interpreted correctly) measurements like weight, heart rate, lung sounds, blood pressure, and temperature. Similarly, literati can note (with some discrepancies) the meter, rhyme scheme, rhetorical devices, and shape of a poem.

After that, though, unless the diagnosis is serious enough to merit more tests, much of the examination is based on the patient’s response to questions:

  • Are you in pain?
  • How much pain?
  • How often do you cough?
  • Have you noticed improvement since you started the medication?
  • Have you experienced any side effects?

Even I, a conscientious patient, notice the ambiguity in my conversations with the doctor. I ask clarifying questions, but I’m not always sure that we understand each other. I’m not sure if I’m describing my condition accurately or in the right terms.

Like it or not, some symptoms are subjective and not as “scientific” as medical personnel would like. It is the doctor’s job to take what I’m saying and try to translate that into what it means for my health. A poet does something similar, looking not simply at the words that are used, but how they relate to one another to produce meaning.

I am not making the argument that analyzing poetry is the same or as important as diagnosing illness. As much as I love literature, I go to see a doctor, not a scholar, when I’m sick.

What I am suggesting is that the broadest divide is one of knowledge, and to a lesser extent, purpose—not method. Both jobs require thoughtful consideration of words and the meanings they convey. Both require judgment skills. Both require the ability to synthesize individual pieces of information into a deeper understanding of the whole.

And in that respect, Pre-Med and English majors may have more in common than the initial diagnosis would indicate.