Category Archive 'English Departments'
20 Aug 2020
Suzanne Conklin Akbari is a Professor in the English Department of the University of Toronto.
Old fogeys like myself characteristically think the role of the university professor is to cultivate the mind and character of the young by exposing them to the best intellectual and artistic productions of the civilization they live in and whose traditions they are by birth inheritors.
Silly me. Today’s professoriate has found a more interesting and important mission, described in Lithhub by Suzanne Conklin Akbari: the mission of leading and instructing the young in the processes of apology and repentance for Western Civilization’s accomplishments and success, particularly for eclipsing the Stone Age cultures of Amerindian tribes, who apparently rather than penning essays speaking as individuals, just naturally collectively participate in grooving over “that which is not seen, not known, what is cherished and hidden.”
Instead of cherishing and cultivating our understanding and appreciation of the Western canon, our proper role apparently is to “decolonize” it as a form of reparations for settling North America in the first place, creating Canada and the United States, building cities and universities and modern technological civilization, thus permitting millions to live in material abundance, peace, and in the possession and enjoyment of vastly more sophisticated forms of thought and art. Shame on us for supplanting and absorbing the descendants of the original thousands of representatives of diverse hunter/gatherer tribes who once freely wandered the undeveloped wilderness in a state of constant rivalry and war, generally living lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Assimilation, you see, was just another of our crimes.
We ought presumably to kick those Injuns out of our wicked Western universities, take away their centrally-heated houses, televisions, and pick-up trucks, issue each of them a breech-cloth, a pair of moccasins, and a bow-and-arrow, give then back their tomahawks, “self government and autonomy,” get back on the boats and go home to Europe leaving the noble red man living in his teepee or his wikiup. He understands, which we don’t, that everything’s like a basket….
This, this is contemporary Academic thought!
[W]hat would it mean to decolonize the canon, specifically, the canon of essay writing puts Montaigne at its foundations and inscribes Woolf at the summit? Washuta and Warburton [in Shapes of Native Non-Fiction, 2019, in which “Editors Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton ground this anthology of essays by Native writers in the formal art of basket weaving. Using weaving techniques such as coiling and plaiting as organizing themes, the editors have curated an exciting collection of imaginative, world-making lyric essays by twenty-seven contemporary Native writers from tribal nations across Turtle Island into a well-crafted basket.”] lay out a path for â€œthe process of decolonizationâ€ through their account of the â€œexquisite vessel.â€ Yet we must also remember that decolonization, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have influentially argued, is not a metaphor; it is about land and water, real things in the real world. It is about reparations, self-government, and autonomy. Weâ€”by which I mean settler people, those who are not native to these territoriesâ€”must be ready to give up things in order to embrace decolonization.
What would this require of us, in terms of the literary canon? Can we keep Montaigne and Woolf, even as we embrace the â€œexquisite vesselâ€? When we incorporate Indigenous writers into Eurocentric canons, it is not enough simply to add in a few writers. Instead, we need to think about how the inclusion of Indigenous writersâ€”including their ways of knowing, their philosophies, and their ways of thinking about literary formâ€”disrupts the very idea of â€œcanon,â€ of â€œessay,â€ of â€œliterature.â€ This necessary question is one that we have begun to ask through The Spouter-Inn literature podcast: what does it mean to have a canon? What is included, and what is excluded? What works are juxtaposed? Who speaks, and when? Who listens? What would it mean to be an active listener, a witness, instead of a passive one? What can books made us doâ€”not just alone, but together?
04 Apr 2019
Alexander Zubatov, PR’97, describes, and explains, in a must-read article, the crazy Continental Left’s takeover of the Humanities.
Here… is another common sense truth, a proposition so obvious that it is bizarre that I should even need to set it forth: the race, gender, religion, sexuality or physical ability or disability of its creator is not a legitimate component of an art workâ€™s quality. In fact, these are the very kinds of irrational social considerations that have sometimes regrettably distorted the picture of what hasâ€”and, more importantly, has notâ€”been deemed canonical but which we, whenever we become cognizant of such errors, should try to discount.
But, in recent times, a strange inversion has taken hold of our thinking on the subject of canonicity. Instead of viewing such superficial aspects of the authorâ€™s identity as illegitimate variables the influence of which we should resist as far as possible, we have opened the floodgates in order to admit authors to the canon precisely on the basis of such considerations. Entire courses and majors have grown up around these superficial identitarian affiliations, and works of artâ€”mistaken, perhaps, for democratic legislative bodiesâ€”have been lavished with praise because of their success in representingâ€”in the sense of political rather than aesthetic representationÂâ€”the experience of this or that subgroup. Moreover, the same people who advocate for this identity genre literature also make a habit of assailing the canon for failures of representation, as though the quality of works could be gauged through a demographic survey. This form of philosophically unsound willful self-blinding to the hard truths of aesthetic superiorityâ€”which I would call aesthetic denialismâ€”has become as pandemic in many segments of academia and the left as climate change denialism is on the right and has done great harm to the reputation and status of the humanities.
Lending an air of gravitas to this aesthetic denialism, there has been a proliferation of various branches of continental theoryâ€”largely post-structuralist and Marxistâ€”that espouse a generally critical attitude towards existing hierarchiesâ€”aesthetic hierarchies includedâ€”seeing in these either the reification of indefensible and arbitrary distinctions (post-structuralism) or the pernicious reflections of power (Marxism). To adapt the argument advanced by John Guillory in his Pierre Bourdieu-inspired landmark work, Cultural Capital, during the decades between the downfall of the hereditary aristocracy and the emergence of our modern-day techno-financial elite, university education, particularly classical humanities education, came to serve as a dividing line between an educated aristocracy and common rubes and plebs. In the era of high modernism and prestigious print journalism, university departments conferring such knowledge and its attendant degrees enjoyed substantial cultural cachet and, to dispense such cachet, needed to agree upon a more or less unitary body of learningâ€”the canonâ€”as a boundary between education and inadequacy. But, as the old literary aristocracy gave way to a new moneyed elite, which elbowed its way into the ranks of the upper crust through highly compensated tech and finance industry jobs and needed to know how to read and write nothing more sophisticated than an office memo or PowerPoint presentation, the high school composition curriculum became more than adequate to its needs. Traditional high culture and university humanities were rendered supererogatory, becoming the devalued province of effete and useless intellectuals. Stripped of its most obvious practical function, the universityâ€™s role in what Marxist theorist Louis Althusser would have called the ideological state apparatus, serving to reproduce existing power relationsâ€”and the humanities professoriate drifted off unmoored into the great unknown. A unitary canon was no longer indispensable because the humanities themselves were no longer indispensable.
This led to two related developments. First, with the humanities no longer closely tethered to prevailing power structures, the stability and traditionalism that a close link to power demands fell away, and prominent humanities scholars with radically anti-establishment views were free to crawl out of the woodwork. Second, the new attitude of disrespectâ€”and, increasingly, open scornâ€”that the techno-financial elite and much of the rest of society came to exhibit towards humanities academics led to a natural tit-for-tat. If you are disrespected, you are likely to seethe and lash out at your tormenters. You may, in fact, adopt your own posture of hauteur and disrespect, as if those people were hopelessly beneath you and will never understand you, since they are either too committed to the power relations in which they are embedded or else simpletons, blind to those power relations.
In this fertile ground for resentment, the attitude of critique took root, building on philosophical currents which first surfaced in the late nineteenth century and began to assume a simulacrum of their present-day form during the countercultural era of the 1960s. Bloom regularly fulminated against what he aptly termed these â€œschools of resentment,â€ which I discuss in more detail here. The approach of these peddlers of critiqueâ€”sometimes known as the hermeneutics of suspicionâ€”was to question all established norms and power structures, including the hegemonic structures that had allegedly informed the composition of the canon. Thus, instead of looking up toward the works they studied, these new anti-humanist humanitarians looked at them askance and endeavored to expose and unravel their inner tensions and contradictions and the hierarchies that had produced those works and entrenched them as objects of veneration. If the old humanities had once offered access to the upper echelons of society, what the new anti-humanities marketed was an attitude of superiority towards the society that had scorned them.
As new generations of students reared under the tutelage of these scholars entered the workforce and academia, the cultural capital enjoyed by the posture of critique predictably increased. Canonical lists were blown open, infiltrated by works that were aesthetically second-rate, but politically favored. A bevy of majors and departments in all sorts of identitarian oppression studies departments crystallized. Critique went corporate. Diversity became an industry: spawning seminars, consultants, initiatives and company retreats. At a time when our society had never been more tolerant, open and inclusive, media organizations, now staffed by graduates of these radicalized humanities departments, began to make a living trafficking in identitarian hysteria about racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.
The numbers confirm this story. They show a pronounced leftward shift in humanities departments since 1990, around the same time when the tech sector, which contributed markedly to the marginalization of the humanities, began its economic takeover.
HT: Katarina Apostilides.
Your are browsing
the Archives of Never Yet Melted
in the 'English Departments' Category.