Thursday, January 17, 2013

Against Academic Tyranny

[By Jerry Ward]

Although the Django Unchained syndrome will have a short life, it should convey a powerful lesson to scholars who teach American literature and culture:  Americans are exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking slantwise against the tyranny of literary and cultural criticism. The particulars of the syndrome will evaporate with the advent of Women’s History Month 2013. Reawakened interest in “History” and the sentient histories we inhabit, however, will prevail a bit longer.

Scholars do not always know, as they argue about the validity of responses to a work of art, what is best.  Myopic albeit practical concerns regarding promotion and tenure, possession of authority, and esteem among their multiracial colleagues too often alienate scholars from their students and the general public.  They forget the excellence of Barbara Christian’s 1987 essay “The Race for Theory”  and of pioneering work by Carolyn Rodgers and Stephen Henderson regarding speech and music as interpretive referents;  of  Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938),  LeRoi Jones’s Blues People ( 1963),  Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970),  George Kent’s Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985),  Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994), and Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract (1997).  These works and others assert the centrality of reader or viewer responses in our interpretations of literature and non-literary writing, and in interpretation of history as narratives of lived experiences.

The professional scholars dwell in dream-sprinkled elite and middle-class cloisters and worship the mysteries of the canon.  They forget the primal obligation of women and men to communicate with men and women.   Isolated by obtuse clerical languages, they minimize how self-publishing, the interests of global capitalism, newspapers, the spectrum of music and entertainment, specialized non-academic magazines, and the ocean of Internet social networking actually shape public tastes, consumption, and responses.  Either by intention or by accident, they are agents of academic tyranny.  Significant numbers of Americans have revolted against such tyranny. They have become students in the public sphere.  They refer to findings and opinions offered by traditional scholars and soi-disant public intellectuals, but their conclusions tend to be radical in the most positive sense of that word.  They teach themselves the contradictions.

“Students,” according to Richard Schramm, National Humanities Center vice president for educational programs, “learn subjects like history and literature best when they are put in the position of scholars  --  that is, when they study primary resources, draw their own conclusions from sometimes ambiguous or conflicting evidence, and make arguments that organize a host of details into a unified statement” (“Focus on Close Reading, Primary Documents Aligns Well with New Standards,” News of the National Humanities Center, Fall/Winter 2012, page 5).  Unlike the students Schramm has in mind, independent students are not bound to formalist assumptions in their quest for knowledge.  They penetrate form to access content and to discover how content has been socially constructed.  They are not stymied if they lack the jargon of literary and cultural criticism, if they can’t twist their mouths around tortured propositions.  Their ordinary, everyday language is sufficient.

Key documents for understanding what is happening in the revolt against academic tyranny are Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader the Text the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) and Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983). Americans who engage in democratic criticism are experimenting with what Rosenblatt called “efferent reading” (focus on what one carries away from one’s reading) and “aesthetic reading” (focus on what one experiences in the process of reading).  Redesigning an insight Said had about what traditional criticism must think itself to be, participants in the Django Unchained syndrome really do make critical thinking “life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom” (The World, the Text….29) Behold, however, an irony of irony. Democratic criticism in the interests of freedom of thought must deal with contradictions that are undeniably coercive.  That is the price of the ticket for passage to brutal honesty.

A film is only a film.  Our momentary fateful attraction to a film’s disturbing properties can be an empowering example of the work we must undertake in the face of overwhelming human problems ---global warming as Nature’s revenge and our ecological irresponsibility; genocide and systemic oppression; diabolical trends in capitalism, criminalization and mass incarceration; ethical issues embodied in technological and scientific progress; violence, terrorism, and the gap between poverty and wealth.  We have to triage our commitments.  Art is necessary and so too is minimizing academic and other forms of tyranny. The sooner we digest what Barbara Christian said eloquently in “The Race for Theory” and what David Walker appealed to the citizens of the world to do, we increase the probability of winning the absurd game of human survival with brutal honesty.

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