DANGER: Slate reaches Peak Schuman

Today I have two new articles up on Slate, both of which I’m very proud of because they deal with my actual favorite thing on Earth, next to television and vegan carrot cake, and that is literature. You know–literature, that minor trifle to which I devoted approximately 14 years of my adulthood and wanted quite badly to pursue as a profession, THAT.

So, article #1 is a review I did of Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) and Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel, for the Slate Book Review. WARNING: it contains no ranting, no polemic, no controversy, no “snark,” really nothing except for a lot of deep and abiding love for my subject matter.

Article #2 is a withering takedown of a truly asinine concern-troll in the Wall Street Journal about how literature classes all just teach about oppression and transnationalism and OH MY GOD YOU ARE SUCH AN IDIOT. (The graphic on this one made me LOL as well. Basically thinking about those three guys hanging out cracked me up.) (DOUBLE-BONUS: this article contains links to TWO excellent old SNL skits. BUT WHICH ONES?)

The other thing regular readers of Slate will notice is that today marks the day I’ve been put into the “right rail,” which is the little “Voices” section they have on the right side of the front page. I’m right between Dear Prudence and Matthew Yglesias (ONE Of those people is my hero; I bet you’ll never guess which one). I have also just signed on to write even more at Slate–a fifth monthly article (on stuff that might not even be higher ed!), plus two more posts on BrowBeat. So: PEAK SCHUMAN. PEEEEEEEEAAAAAK SCHUUUUUUUUMAN.

In other awesome news, the David Brooks Weeeeeed post (see below, now with AWESOME NEW GRAPHIC I MADE) has been selected for WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” front page, which in the WordPress world is kiiiiiiind of a big deal. I’ll even get a li’l widget soon! What a day!!!!!

K, time for a nap. I wish I was kidding. But I’m pooped.

14 thoughts on “DANGER: Slate reaches Peak Schuman

  1. I cannot do better than quote the great Frank Kermode: “For pedagogues to argue, as in various ways they do, that the political bearing of a work of literature is the most important thing about it — or that it ought first to be studied as just another document in some historical power negotiation — is, in my view, a subversion of their calling.” This is not to say that what takes place at UCLA is “victimization” studies, as the WSJ article may argue; but it is to say that literary study has been subordinated to a model of cultural studies that touts a hermeneutic of suspicion. This hermeneutic, in attending to the work as a “document in some historical power negotiation,” to use Kermode’s words, displaces aesthetic appreciation and, in my experience, divests literary studies of any pleasure. This is not, by the way, an argument for de-contextualized, de-historicized reading; nor is it an argument that race, gender, class ought not be broached in literature classes. It is an argument, however, that believes in the primacy of the literary work in these discussions, and not in the primacy of topics whose experts reside in fields other than literary studies. On this topic, I would recommend reading: Carsten Dutt and HU Gumbrecht in German Quarterly, “Sed contra,” (86.3).


    • But my point is that viewing departments like UCLA English this way is fallacious. Click on the breadth requirement course catalogs. They’re just a bunch of literature. Virginia fucking Woolf is hardly subversive. It’s just a different way to categorize things. Classes take on a life of their own and talk about all sorts of stuff, from all sorts of angles. The breadth requirement is just to acknowledge that we live in a big, complex world–one substantially bigger and more complex than Frank Kermode envisions.


    • He can handle it. Plus, it’s easy to say there’s no problem with purely aesthetic literary study when all the authors, cultures and paradigms look just like you. That’s not to say I wouldn’t teach Kermode in a larger theory class. I’ve read Kermode. But no literary theorist is God. That’s why a variety of approaches–aesthetic, historical-materialist, gender, sexuality, formalist, philosophical–is the best approach.


    • Pardon me, but pfffffttttt. Kermode was a toweringly brilliant critic who, like so many of his generation (Harold Bloom, though a bit younger, springs to mind), turned into a reactionary grouch when he realized that the model of literary criticism he practiced was growing old-fashioned. Hardly a sacred cow.

      The politicized “hermeneutic of suspicion” is certainly popular in the literary academy, but by no means as dominant as Heather Mac Donald, David Brooks, et al., like to rage-fantasize. It’s one of many approaches that humanities departments teach and practice. That it exists at all seems to be what bothers Mac Donald and Brooks and, yes, Kermode.

      My main beef, though, is with the oft-repeated claim that historicized or politicized criticism somehow reduces or oversimplifies our understanding of literature, that it leaves unexplored the rich realm of “the aesthetic.” It doesn’t. There are few things MORE complex than the relation between literature and what Mac Donald calls “the shallow categories of identity and class politics.” (Time out: the SHALLOW categories of identity and class politics? Has she ever tried for two seconds to think about those categories rigorously?) Plus, scholar after scholar has shown that, in appreciating fiction and poetry as an encoding of human culture, one can achieve a truly nuanced, even beautiful understanding of the literary aesthetic.

      You say the cultural studies hermeneutic takes the pleasure out of studying literature. Well, to each her own, of course. But for me, this kind of analysis and appreciation is exactly what puts pleasure INto studying literature.


      • Kermode’s no sacred cow, and my rejoinder to Rebecca was only facetious anyway (I’m a Schumaniac). But it seems inadequate to me to dismiss one of the towering figures of 20th-cen lit crit as a “reactionary grouch.”
        To your final paragraph: the cultural studies hermeneutic may well put pleasure into one’s study, and it makes legitimate contributions to knowledge, but these contributions are of a manifestly historical — and pointedly non-aesthetic — variety. The edge of aesthetic criticism is blunted, and indeed almost by necessity, when literary works are treated first and foremost as the historicized instantiations of broader cultural phenomena. As Carsten Dutt writes, “When one only knows to say of a given literary work what he can already say of ten or twenty other works, what he says isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s too little differentiated.” To be sure, I’m not suggesting cultural studies scholarship is without merit, it’s just that I think we need to stop pretending it can adequately supplant the work done by Literaturwissenschaft. As things stand, many people I know engaged in the enterprise of cultural studies — who were trained in literature departments, mind you — deem themselves historians. But that’s a problem for another day . . .


  2. I looked up some of what UCLA is offering, and they’ve got some terrific-sounding courses, with lots of options for students. It looks like a healthy program, not a bare-bones struggling one like so many are today. The narrow views of elitists are now infecting K-12 educaion, with kindergartners being asked to do close reading of texts without background knowledge, like Harvard circa 1953.
    Rebecca, on a personal note to you! *Thrilled* for your success, as a smart and individual voice. You’ll have to be sure not to let yourself be used as a model of the brave new world where post-academia is a wonderful venue for self-renewal, given the army of adjuncts out there who will never have the luck to write for Slate, or to have a spouse to get health insurance from, or indeed any energy left after teaching to do anything else. Let alone those who are middle-aged with no retirement savings. I know that you’ll be using your new platforms to keep the cause alive. Brava to you.


  3. I always appreciate the rage-filled posts and the rants, but the thoughtful passion without rage (article #1) was also much appreciated (and refreshing). Thank you!


  4. Hi Rebecca–Thanks for the Slate article about the WSJ take on UCLA. I read it and instantly my bullshit detector went off–they kept requirements for diversity and got rid of all the rest?–so I looked the UCLA website and discovered MacDonald hadn’t been truthful. Here’s what kills me: I then posted in the comments on the WSJ website that MacDonald was wrong/dishonest. My comment was removed. I posted again, WSJ took it down again. (The comment wasn’t libelous, just pointed out that the article was wrong.) So I guess the Journal doesn’t really care whether its articles are right or wrong…


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