When policemen turn their backs to a mayor at the funeral of a police officer slain in the line of duty, is this symbolic act to be “read” as a sign of anger, disrespect, and resentment? Is it the equivalent of a jazz musician’s turning his back to an audience as he produces exquisite sounds? Is this positioning of the body in uniform, an embodiment of law and order, subject to decoding? The gesture is broadcast in the public sphere of television. Is it to be interpreted as a warning that American social dynamics are minimizing prospects for civic communication? Is ours a society wherein anything is everything? Is the turning of the back actually a turning back to a pre-history?
These dense questions haunt us. When we hear answers from the right wing, we hear the speech of Eugene O’Neill’s Robert “Yank” Smith. From the left side of the house, room or aisle, we hear the arcane mutterings of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss. The confusion of messages regarding the will of the American people inspires distrust among citizens. We begin to fantasize that the old days were good and that future-oriented ideas stole “our country” and that we should take it back by any means necessary. The most militant patriots wave Trojan flags, convinced that prophylactics and petitions to marketplace gods pave the way to salvation. Our public educations have armed us with a few facts but not the critical strength to construct, embrace, and sustain civic virtues. We turn our backs on a future and smile in the faces of golden age idols. We hear but refuse to understand how discomforting questions at once inscribe and authorize a terror-laced future.
Each week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the trajectory of intellectual life in America, on the progress which is symbolized by flag-waving. The New York Review of Books, The Economist, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal, however, are the sources of choice for those who dwell in the international cartels of real power. Thus, The Chronicle serves as a marginalized forum for those who are assigned or who volunteer to bamboozle the American public about intellectual cultures, especially those sectors we deem to be “literary.” They wave their Trojan flags vigorously as they descend into Renaissance Dreams.
Professors Jeffrey Williams and Arthur Krystal recently donated flags of some merit to the January 5 online issue of The Chronicle. Williams faithfully preserves the connotations of Jonathan Swift’s use of the word “modest” in his essay “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” He fears that such methods as surface reading, thin description, new formalism, book history, distant reading, and new sociology of literature are clear, evident threats to the canon and traditional cultural values. In his mind, Sharon Marcus, Stephen M. Best, Franco Moretti, Heather Love, and Rita Felski are among the younger scholars who have sinned by exposing the hubris of a dubious tradition that used bad faith to serve deodorized public ends. The conclusion embroidered on his flag is instructive:
It remains to be seen, though, whether surface reading and allied approaches re-embrace a more cloistered sense of literary studies. I'd like to think that criticism has more to do than accumulate scholarly knowledge, at the least to explain our culture to ourselves, as well as serving as a political watchdog.It is difficult to believe that modesty can survive in twenty-first century America. We can, nevertheless, let Williams have his donnée as we scrutinize how “the utopian impulse of criticism” serves the special interests of neo-hegemony.
Today's modesty may not bode an academic withdrawal from public life. It may simply register an unsettled moment, as past practices cede and a new generation takes hold. The less-optimistic outlook is that it represents the decline of criticism as a special genre with an important role to investigate our culture. While realism carries less hubris, it leaves behind the utopian impulse of criticism.
Krystal waves a flag that is rhetorically forthright in sending its message, a message that drums and trumpets genuine disdain for a public that lacks discrimination in making choices about reading, or seriously misreads the nature of literature. His essay “What We Lose if We Lose the Canon” is partly a Puritan jeremiad, partly a tribute to the Americanized intellectual and political legacies of Leo Strauss and Allen Bloom. Krystal’s final paragraph is a jewel:
Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.Krystal sends us an honest message about what is brewing and fermenting in the right wing of American cultural, literary and political life. We should listen carefully to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” to be sure we do not miss the ideological nuances threaded on Krystal’s flag. And we should be generous in allowing him to sit in the darkness of thinking the history we are writing can be erased.
We injure ourselves if we turn our backs on the raw process of how history continues its evolving in the United States of America in 2015. We will do greater injury to ourselves if we fail to learn what vexillology can tell us about the Trojan flags, for now is the moment for relentless interrogation of the environments in which we attempt to live.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 7, 2015
This piece was originally posted to BK Nation. It is re-posted here by permission of the author.