Thursday, July 30, 2009

Careers in criticism

The reason so much literary criticism is “crap”—his word, not mine—is careerism, Elberry says. He shares an anecdote:

I was talking to a young, ambitious, power-suited female academic in 2001, who as much as admitted that she didn’t study the literature that interested her, but rather the things she could easily write about, so she could publish, and so get on. She even said something like “you’ve got to play the game.”But if this is, as he says, the deep problem in criticism (“people like this exist and thrive in academia, like maggots in a carcass,” Elberry adds, and “will never write anything worth reading”), what is the solution? Like Mark Edmundson, whose proposal I dissected earlier, he suggests a “moratorium on academic publications.” But this won’t rid the world of crappy criticism. It will merely delay its reemergence.

What then is to be done? I have an idea or two.

Let me start by focusing for a moment on Elberry’s diagnosis of the problem. He is absolutely right that far too many academics are motivated by career rather than, as I put it the day before yesterday, the ambition to contribute to knowledge.

Career was originally a French word that entered the language in the sixteenth century for a horse-racing track. Within a century, the word came to be applied to what the horses were doing on the track—galloping at top speed. “To pass a career is but to run with strength and courage such a course as is [fit] for [a horse’s] ability,” wrote the poet Gervase Markham in 1671.

Another century, and the word had come to refer to a rapid and continuous course of action; an uninterrupted progress. In 1722, the philosopher William Wollaston warned his readers “not to permit the reins to our passions, or give them their full career.” Two hundred years into the word’s career, and the smell of horses was still upon it.

Not until a hundred and fifty years later was the word career first used in its current sense of a “course of professional employment, which affords the opportunity for advancement in the world” (OED). In this sense the word was first used in Felix Holt, the 1868 novel by George Eliot. The novel opens when Harold Transome, the second-born son of landed gentry, returns to England from the colonies with a self-made fortune. Under these conditions, at that time, Harold would have been expected to settle down to a life of country leisure. He has decided to do otherwise—to run for Parliament, as a radical. He could have had a comfortable life, his mother reflects bitterly. But no: “Harold must go and make a career for himself.”

The distinctly modern notion of a career upsets the apple cart of ancient expectations. In the Laws, Plato explicitly raises the question of what life should be like for “men whose necessities have been moderately provided for.” There is a “double, or more than double, glut of occupation” in such a life, he concludes, because it is “concerned with the practice of every virtue of body and mind” (7.806d–807d). When Abraham is confronted by God at the age of ninety-nine, he is told: Walk in my ways, and be complete [tamid]. God doesn’t say: Go and make a career for yourself.

Not until modernity, in short, was career understood to be separate from and perhaps at odds with life. All career advice is founded upon the assumption that such a separation exists. The current commonplace, for example, advises that you need to balance career and life. You can’t help suspecting that by balancing career and life, most people mean juggling them.

Here, for example, is some advice on how to balance your life and career:The flight attendant, giving preflight instructions, reminds individuals to first place on the oxygen mask on themselves before attempting to assist others. When you are busy bustling through life, how often do you take time to take care of you, first? You owe it to yourself! If you do not take care of you, you will not be around to take care of those who need you the most.This advice comes from the Institute of Family and Work, but you’d never know it. For it expresses the attitude which is most inimical to family: I have to take care of me first. I owe it to myself!

What is more, this attitude is already the driving force in many careers. I don’t know about you, but I already work with a whole lot of people who don’t need to be reminded to put themselves first. In fact, the habit of putting oneself first is what produces the careerist. Careerism is the self-serving, promotion-oriented behavior that seeks career advancement above all else.

Think of what we say to each other when we meet a new person. “What do you do?” she asks. “I’m a professor [or a doctor or lawyer or candlestick maker],” he answers. She asks what we do, but we reply with our sense of what we are—perhaps because we cannot bear to admit, even to ourselves, what we really do all day long. We’d be bored or appalled. And perhaps we can’t acknowledge that much of what we do is an angling for promotion. To the degree that we want to be rather than do we are all careerists.

Thus the ambitious, power-suited academic in Elberry’s anecdote wants to be published. What she does is to “get on.” At a cocktail party she would have to answer, if she were honest, “I write tedious, niggling papers for scholarly journals that nobody reads, because all I really want to do is advance to the top of my profession. I have no idea what I’ll do once I get there. Check back with me in about ten years—if I’m still talking to you. You may be beneath me by then.”

The careerist avoids risk for fear that a mistake or failure might tarnish his image and put promotion and career progress in jeopardy. You can easily imagine the effect that this risk avoidance, this reluctance to stand for principle, has upon a profession or institution.

In literary scholarship, the effect is pretty obvious. Because promotion is based upon the quantity of the work that is produced, not on its quality, scholars take shortcuts to publication. Hence the enduring popularity of the “application” model. Select a currently dominant figure of thought from column A and a canonical (that is, frequently discussed) text from column B. Now reinterpret text B by rewording it in the vocabulary of theorist A, et voilà! A new publication! Small wonder that so many literary scholars rush into print with work that is shoddy, half-baked, and sometimes even full of untruths. Probative inquiry consists almost entirely of combing through the names in column A. The conclusions yielded by “applying” their concepts and categories to the texts in column B are never examined. They are taken on faith.

It is a maxim with me that ethics place a person at a competitive disadvantage. If your scruples prevent you from doing what is no problem for a careerist then you face an obstacle he does not. There is another way of looking at it, however. If you have a competitive advantage over someone, it may be owing to your lack of scruples.

Careerism, then, does not merely damage professions and institutions. It damages the person. And, indeed, that is a better definition of careerism. It is the practice of advancing a career at the expense of a person’s integrity.

If careerism is the problem in the writing of literary scholarship and criticism the solution is the reinstatement of integrity, but there is of course no professional nor institutional mechanism for doing so. It would require the reintegration of life and career. It would require foregoing the lure of personal advancement in favor of responsibility to—to what?

The ancients would not have hestitated to reply. For the Greeks, virtue; for the Jews and Christians, God. The modern, though, believes in work (“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,” Freud says); and for the modern, then, the question becomes this. What is he reponsible to on the job? Not in the sense of whom he must answer to, but rather what is he responsive to?

Elberry mistakes my answer to this question where literary critics are concerned. He thinks that I am suggesting that “critics should write about less well-known books,” but I suggest this only as a method, a practical expedient, for undertaking their real responsibility: namely, to contribute to literary knowledge. The demand upon critics (in the university and out) must be, not to “write something new and different,” but to add something new and different to the store of human understanding. If they accepted this as their professional responsibility, who knows? Their careers might even advance.

4 comments:

R. T. said...

Here is my response to your posting at Books, Inq.

"D. G. Myers' carefully crafted argument on the subject of literary criticism--which I admire for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I am almost always impressed by the author's sensibilities and erudition--reminds me of my proper (and humble) position in this ongoing debate. Let me explain what I mean in the form of a baseball metaphor, which Professor Myers might enjoy: While many in academia are in the big leagues (and many have earned "golden gloves" and MVP awards), I--on the other hand--am a simple journeyman who will be (for many reasons) forever bouncing around in the double-A (or even the triple-A) levels of the minors; I love playing the game, but I could never match up well with the fastballs and hard sliders that I would have to deal with if I were moved up to the big show. Still, to repeat my assertion, I do love the game, which is why I keep playing though I know that my skill levels are limited (i.e. I'm not a natural athlete)."

litlove said...

In the UK we have the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). Every 7 years or so, every academic must put forward 4 pieces of research for peer evaluation. So the bad news is you have to produce at least 4 (although I never considered this to be so very much over seven years), but the good news is that those pieces will be rigorously assessed. The money the government gives to the university is based on the quality of the research.

The culture of academia has become overly obsessed with quantity of publication, but for most people working within it, the need to be productive is written into their contract and the process they're on, as much as being a personal and careerist choice. The danger of this is not just to the integrity of the researcher (and I agree with you wholeheartedly about that, having witnessed career academics producing the classic salami article - you can slice it up every which way and use it again) but to the students we have the responsibility of teaching.

That contribution to knowledge you mention emerges gradually, organically, from the process of continual, profound discussion in which teachers and students explore every angle and aspect of a text and enlighten each other. The rush to publication cuts through this, cauterizes it, makes knowledge something we grasp too fast and pass on without caution or reconsideration. Everyone loses out this way, from the student to the teacher to the institution to the field of knowledge. I really think we should all slow down.

elberry said...

Superb. For myself, writing isn't just squiggling things on paper, or a mechanical means of influencing people, like pushing buttons on a machine; it's closer to what it was in, for example, Ancient Egypt - true language brings us close to the divine, or closer.

To use language badly, mechanically, to obfuscate, seems to me not merely slovenly and coarse, but indecent. If i'm right in supposing that the gods gave us language, as a special gift - then one's attitude, when writing, should be 'this i do for the greater glory of god' - and this for the jeu d'esprit, for Wodehouse-like buffoonery, as much as for Dantean penetration.

i always have a vague anxiety that i will be judged by what i have written & said, as much as by my behaviour; that ill-considered, meretricious words will be a noose around my neck, one day.

bibliochef said...

of course, the thing here is the institutionalizaton and professionalization of academic life and the demise (if ever alive) of hte public intellectual in America