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Crisis in the Humanities


One of our most common genres today is the epitaph for the humanities. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, Robert Weisbuch, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, declares :

Today’s consensus about the state of the humanities–it’s bad, it’s getting worse, and no one is doing much about it– is supported by dismal facts. The percentage of undergraduates majoring in humanities fields has been halved over the past three decades. Financing for faculty research has decreased. The salary gap between full-time scholars in the humanities and in other fields has widened, and more and more humanists are employed part time and paid ridiculously low salaries. . . . As doctoral programs in the humanities proliferate irresponsibly, turning out more and more graduates who cannot find jobs, the waste of human talent becomes enormous, intolerable.

More broadly, the humanities, like the liberal arts generally, appear far less surely at the center of higher education than they once did. We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We re living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities–with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever–has become plain lack of interest. No one’s even angry with us now, just bored. 1

Devastating as that last comment is, I’m afraid it’s all too accurate. For consider one further fact that Weisbuch doesn’t mention: the economy that cannot accommodate even the best of our new humanities Ph.Ds is a boom economy, with unemployment currently at a forty-year low at 4.2%.

Weisbuch’s own "solutions"–he calls them "Six Proposals to Revive the Humanities"-- are the following: (1) to gather data on our departments, finding out where our graduates get jobs so as to insure better planning, (2) to "practice doctoral birth control," using Draconian means to cut down the number of entering graduate students, (3) to "reclaim the curriculum" by having all courses taught by full-time faculty members rather than adjuncts, (4) "create jobs beyond academe for humanities graduates, (5) "redesign graduate programs so as to accommodate the new community college market where teaching skills are more important than scholarly expertise, and (6) "to become newly public"–that is, to make better contacts with the so-called outside world. 2

The trouble with such practical solutions is that they assume that we have a clear sense of what the humanities do and what makes them valuable: it’s just a matter of convincing those crass others, whether within the university or outside its walls, that they really need us and can use our products. But the more we probe the "humanities" question, the more apparent it becomes that, whereas, schools of engineering or departments of economics have a specific curriculum and mandate, the "humanities" umbrella–at my own university, Stanford, the disciplines included are history, philosophy, religion, the various language and literature departments, art history, drama, and musicology – remains amorphous. What does the term humanities mean today? The mission statement of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), found on its web site, reads as follows:

What are the Humanities?

The humanities are not any one thing. They are all around us and evident in our daily lives. When you visit an exhibition on "The Many Realms of King Arthur" at your local library, that is the humanities. When you read the diary of a seventeenth-century New England midwife, that is the humanities. When you watch an episode of The Civil War, that is the humanities too.

Note that in all these examples, the recipient of the humanistic "knowledge" proffered is merely passive, the exhibitions and TV programs designed, of necessity, for an audience that has no prior knowledge of King Arthur or the Civil War. In the hope that the more-or-less vacuous NEH statement was merely an aberration, I turned to the "National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965" which brought the NEH and NEA into being:

(1) The arts and humanities belong to all the people of the United States.

What can "belong" possibly mean here? I as citizen do not "own" specific art works and philosophical treatises the way I might own stock or real estate. And how does this compare to the sciences? Does microbiology–or protein chemistry–"belong" to all the people of the United States?

(2) An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.

At best, this statement is blandly patronizing. Imagine someone claiming that "An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to the humanities alone, but must give full value and support to those great branches, the sciences and social sciences"? But further: the assertion that arts and humanities somehow make us better persons and citizens is, at best, implausible. For as we learned in World War II (and of course we had always known it), "culture" by no means insures ethical behavior; Hitler, let’s remember was so enraptured by Wagner that he attended performances of Lohengrin at the Vienna Opera House ten times in the course of the 1908 five-month season. 3

(3) The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.

Do the arts and humanities foster diversity? I know of no evidence for this proposition. Heidegger’s essays on Hölderlin are generally held to be classics of twentieth-century philosophy and literature. They aim to define the poet’s unique genius, but the last thing they foster is "respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups."

But if the NEH’s claims for the humanities are, to say the least, questionable, they are also quite typical. At Stanford University for example, the official Bulletin contains this description:

The School of Humanities and Sciences, with over 40 departments and interdepartmental degree programs, is the primary locus for the superior liberal arts education offered by Stanford University. Through exposure to the humanities, undergraduates study the ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions of the human experience, past and present, and so are prepared to make thoughtful and imaginative contributions to the culture of the future."

The language used here is revealing. Whereas the social sciences (according to the Bulletin) teach "theories and techniques for the analysis of specific societal issues," and the "hard" sciences prepare students to become the "leaders" in our increasingly technological society, the humanities "expose" students to the "ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions of human experience." Exposure is nice enough–but also perfectly dispensable when leadership and expertise are at stake. Indeed, the humanities, as now understood and taught in our universities, no longer possess what Pierre Bourdieu calls "symbolic capital": an "accumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration or honour" founded on the "dialectic of knowledge (connaissance) and recognition (reconnais-sance) 4." In the capitalist and multicultural democracy of late twentieth century America, based as it is on money rather than on social class, "exposure" to the "intellectual dimensions of the human experience" is no longer a sine qua non of success or even of the Good Life: witness Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.

Nothing could bring this point home more forcibly than the recent controversy about the NEH’s invitation to Bill Clinton to deliver the 2000 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, an invitation Clinton declined in response to strong protest from the scholarly community. The annual Jefferson Lecture, inaugurated in 1972 by Lionel Trilling, has been given by the likes of Jaroslav Pelikan, C. Vann Woodward, Vincent Scully, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Emily T. Vermeule–all of them serious scholars and outstanding intellectuals in their respective disciplines, ranging from architecture (Scully) to history (Woodward), to classics (Vermeule). Accordingly, when William Ferris, the chairman of the NEH 5, explained that his hope was that in making the Jefferson Lecture a Presidential event, "the humanities" would be brought "into the lives of millions of Americans who don’t know what the humanities are and have no sense of the great work we do [at the NEH}," what he was really saying was that the term humanities no longer means anything, that at best it has a negative thrust, specifically, in the case of the Jefferson Lecture, giving the President a chance to make a speech that would not be overtly political but would deal with what are vaguely conceived as "humanistic" values. And of course this "lecture" would be written by the President’s speech writers–a situation that, in the scholarly community, would be classified as plagiarism.

Given this climate, perhaps we can think more seriously about the state of the "humanities" if we begin by getting rid of the word "humanities"–a word, incidentally, of surprisingly recent vintage. The first edition of the OED, whose supplement appears in 1933, does not include it at all. Humane, Humanism, humanist, humanity, humanitarian: these are familiar cognates of the word human, but humanities was not the term of choice for an area of knowledge and set of fields of study until after World War II. The more usual (and broader) rubric was Liberal Arts, Arts and Sciences, or Arts, Letters, and Sciences. The shift in terminology, reflected in the now-ubiquitous humanities centers, humanities special programs, and humanities fellowships, testifies, paradoxically, to an increasing perplexity about what these designations might mean.

Suppose, then, that we get down to cases and look at the state of one of the central branches of the humanities: the study of literature or, as I prefer to call it, poetics. "Literature" is an imprecise designator that comes into use only in the eighteenth century 6, whereas discussions of the poetic are more ancient and more cross-cultural. The discipline of poetics (which, from Plato through the nineteenth century, comprises narrative and drama as well as lyric) has been classified in four basic ways:

  1. The poetic may be understood as a branch of rhetoric. From Aristotle’s profound understanding of rhetoric as the art (techné) of finding the available means of persuasion, to Cicero and Quintilian’s division of rhetoric into three tasks –docere (to teach), delectare (to delight), and movere (to move)-- and three faculties–inventio (the finding of arguments, dispositio (the arrangement into parts), and elocutio (style) -- to the handbooks of the medieval rhetoricians like Geoffrey of Vinsauf, to the late eighteenth century manuals of Hugh Blair and George Campbell, to the rhetorical hermeneutics of the contemporary Group Mu 8, rhetoric has flourished as the study of how a piece of writing is put together. It has gradually evolved from its early prescriptive character (the description of rhetorical traits necessary to delight or move a given audience) to the more empirical study of what figures and devices actually are used in literary and non-literary composition. Rhetoric thus means primarily practical criticism –the examination of diction and syntax, rhythm and repetition, and the various figures of speech.

But effective rhetoric, as Aristotle first demonstrated in what is still the great treatment of the subject, is no mere "ornament," as the tropes and rhetorical figures used to be called, but a matter of ethos and pathos: the artful presentation of a self designed to be persuasive to its audience, and the construction of an audience that will empathize with that self. If, to take some Renaissance examples, Philip Sidney provides us with an excellent example of the ethical argument (in his case, the sprezzatura that makes us sympathize with Astrophel in the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, as with the charmingly modest speaker of The Defense of Poetry), John Donne is the master of the pathetic argument: the urgent and passionate appeal to the poet’s (and preacher’s) fellow sinners to be at one with his suffering.

In a forthcoming book 9, John Guillory suggests that rhetoric is at the very center of our discipline as literary scholars. No other discipline, after all, has as its central focus the issue as to how language actually works, whether in newspaper editorials or poems or the weather report. Conversely, inattention to rhetoric, as in Harold Bloom’s powerful poetry criticism, downgrades the materiality of the text at the expense of the ideas expressed in it, thus occluding the significant differences between, say, a Wallace Stevens poem and an Emerson essay. At the same time, the focus on the rhetorical dimension of a given text inevitably downplays the cognitive import of the poetic construct. Rhetoric, Michel Meyer argues in a recent study, flourishes where ideologies fail, or, in Nancy S. Struever’s words, it "reveals a deep commitment to question/ response formations as more fundamental than concepts of referentiality in discursive exchange." 10 This points the way the second frame for literary study.

(2) From Plato to Heidegger and Levinas, poetry has often been understood as a branch of philosophy, and hence as a potential expression of truth and knowledge. Because poetry couldn’t pass Plato’s truth test–even Homer told false and salacious stories about the Gods–the poets were ostensibly banished from the Republic. I shall have more to say of this below, but for the moment, I note only that this conception of poetry is antithetical to the first. If the main purpose of a literary text is to convey knowledge or formulate truths, questions of form and genre take a back seat. Rimbaud’s abandonment of the alexandrine, for example, in favor of free verse and then prose poems would matter much less than the content of those dense and oblique Rimbaldian texts, verse or prose. Again, if theories of poetry-as-rhetoric regard James Joyce and Ezra Pound as key modernists, the theory of poetry-as-philosophy would (and has) put Samuel Beckett or Paul Celan at that center.

The treatment of poetry as truth or knowledge has produced some marvelous criticism, especially in the Romantic period and again after the Second World War when Heidegger came to prominence, but it has its own problems, perhaps most notably that it favors a limited corpus of literature at the expense of all others–the lyric of Wordsworth and Shelley, for example, at the expense of, say, a Jane Austen novel, which doesn’t lend itself to comparable philosophical reflection. Then, too–and I shall have more to say on this below–the equation of poetry and philosophy tends to shortchange the former: when a given artwork is seen to exemplify or illustrate, say, Adorno’s aesthetic theory, its heterogeneity is ignored, the pedagogical aim being one of exemplification rather than respect for the poem’s own ontology.

(3) From antiquity to the present, poetry has also been classified as one of the arts (this time Aristotle is more important than Plato). In this configuration, poetics becomes a form of discourse that regards its object as inherently other from the ordinary writings and events of everyday life. A poem will be read, less for its potential truth value or its specific rhetorical properties, than as the product of particular human skills and genius, and its context now comes from the other arts--music, dance, painting, architecture, and so on. As such, discourse about poetry involves what Plato calls in the Ion technê kai episteme. Technê was the standard Greek word both for a practical skill and for the systematic knowledge or experience which underlies it. So technê, meaning "craft," "skill," ‘technique," "method," "art," coupled with epistemê, meaning "knowledge," is the domain of the arts. Plato himself concludes in the Ion that discourse about poetry doesn’t seem to have sufficient technê kai epistemê and that the rhapsode’s skill at speaking about Homer (but not about other poets) is a matter of inspiration–in other words, a second-order poetry, that cannot be taught or learned–it simply is.

In our own time, the most prominent theorists of this position have been the Russian Formalists who have analyzed the poetic function in specific works, genres, and modes: a showpiece would be Roman Jakobson’s "Marginal Notes on the Prose of Boris Pasternak," which analyzes the role of passive verb constructions in creating the particular tone of a Pasternak short story, Jakobson’s point being that "prose" can be just as "artistic" as "poetry." 11 Such autonomy theory has been criticized, on the one hand, for its excessive technicality and hence potential aridity, and, on the other, for its inevitably subjectivity: the leap from the interpretation of a particular device (e.g., Pasternak’s use of passive verb constructions) to the theory of what constitutes a work of art is a real one–although it is not, as I shall suggest below, insurmountable -- and it no doubt animates Plato’s reservation as to Ion’s ability to interpret Homer.

(4) Partly as a result of such Platonic skepticism about "teaching" poetry, as well as the unfortunate division of "literature" departments into the "critical" ("English") and the "creative" ("Creative Writing"), poetics has increasingly been viewed as a branch of history or cultural studies. From this perspective, a poetic text is primarily to be understood as a symptom of the larger culture to which it belongs and as an index to a particular historical or cultural formation. Literary practices, moreover, are taken to be no different in kind from other social or cultural practices. A poem or novel or film is discussed, not for its intrinsic merits or as the expression of individual genius, nor for its expression of essential truths or its powers of persuasion, but for its political role, the "cultural work" it performs, or what it reveals about the state of a given society. In this scheme of things, questions of value inevitably take the back seat, there being, in fact, no reason why Henry James’s novels are a better index to or symptom of the cultural aporias of turn-of-the-century America than the best-sellers of the period–or, for that matter, early 20th century domestic architecture, popular periodicals, or medical treatises. Read the list of topics currently being studied by the fellows at a university humanities center and you will find that "literature" functions almost exclusively in this way: the project titles would suggest to anyone outside the academy that all the fellows come from a single department–cultural history. 12

Literature as rhetoric, literature as philosophy, literature as an art, literature as history: what is at stake in adopting one of these classif-ications to the exclusion of the others? Interestingly, the first three inevitably incorporate history into the discipline, in that they examine the history of the different poetic, rhetorical, philosophical, and generic forms as well as the history of their philosophical reception. But history of is very different from the transposition that views literature itselfas history the position of contemporary cultural studies, which is committed to the demolition of such "obsolete" categories as poetic autonomy, poetic truth, and formal and rhetorical value. Since cultural studies currently dominates the arena of literary study, I want to focus here on this particular approach.

We might begin by noting that the treatment of poetry as a branch of history or culture is based on the assumption that the poetry of a period is a reliable index to that period’s larger intellectual and ideological currents. Beckett’s Endgame, for example, testifies to the meaningless-ness and horror of a post-Auschwitz, nuclear world. But as critics from Aristotle to Adorno have understood, the theory that imaginative poetry reflects its time ignores what is specific to a work of art, along with its powers of invention, transformation, and resistance. Thus Aristotle’s point, in the ninth Chapter of the Poetics:

The difference between a historian and poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse. . . . The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and serious (kai philosophoteron kai spoudaioteron) than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.

By a "general truth" I mean the sort of thing that a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily. . . . A "particular fact" is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him.

It is clear, then . . . that the poet must be a "maker" (poietes) not of verses but of stories, since he is a poet in virtue of his "representation," and what he represents is action. 13(#1451b)

The meaning of the possible ("what might happen") is made clearer by Aristotle’s response to Plato’s complaint that poets are dangerous to the state because they tell lies. "The standard of what is correct," writes Aristotle, "is not the same in the art of poetry as it is in the art of social conduct or any other art. . . . . It is less of an error not to know that a female stag has no horns than to make a picture that is unrecognizable" (#1461).

But of course Plato understood this distinction perfectly. The danger of poetry to the ideal republic, after all, is in direct proportion to its power, its charm, its magic: "We will beg Homer and other poets not to be angry if we cancel those and all similar passages [e.g., "false" stories about the gods], not that they are not poetic and pleasing to most hearers, but because the more poetic they are the less are they suited to the ears of boys and men who are destined to be free." 14 One could hardly endow the poetic with more power. And indeed, when in Book X of the Republic, Plato takes up the ancient "quarrel between philosophy and poetry," so as to dismiss the latter from the well-governed state, he admits that "we ourselves are very conscious of her spell," "her magic." That magic reappears at the conclusion of the Republic with the poetic myth of Er, as if to let us know that, despite all the good reasons to the contrary, for Plato, poetry is finally the highest calling.

In distinguishing mimesis (representation) from diegesis (straight-forward exposition or narrative in the author’s own person), Plato, and Aristotle after him, isolate the fictive as the essential characteristic of the poetic construct: Not what has happened but what might happen either possibly or probably. In his celebrated Metahistory, Hayden White taught us that, contra Aristotle, historical writing, even the "simplest" chronicle, also has a fictive element.15 White places nineteenth-century historio-graphy from Hegel and Michelet to Nietzsche and Croce within the larger tradition of narrative fiction. But Metahistory was published a quarter of a century ago (1973), and since then a major reversal has set in. For even as the notion of text as representation continues to be operative (there being no "reality" outside textual representation that one can access), in practice, the study of representation as all there is has created, ironically enough, a situation where the what of mimesis has become much more important than the how. Subject matter–whether divine right kingship in Renaissance England or the culture of condoms in early twentieth-century America–becomes all.

At its best, the alignment of poetic and cultural practices has given literary study a new life. Ulysses, for example, was traditionally read as a parodic modern-day Odyssey or as an elaborate experiment in which plot and character are subordinated to the investigation of the possibilities of language. From the perspective of cultural studies, it is seen as a brilliant exposé of colonial subjugation, illustrating, as it does, the fate of ordinary Dubliners under British imperial rule. Or again, Ulysses reveals the "colonial" status as well as the hidden strength of women in the masculinist Joycean universe. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Nostromo are similarly read as depictions of the horrors of colonial oppression under capitalist expansion, this time with respect to race in Africa and Central America; and here too the representation of gender has become the subject of interesting and useful critique.

The downside of the equation between cultural studies and literary studies is that, carried to its logical conclusion, cultural studies can dispense with the literary altogether. Studies of consumerism, for example, can be based on the analysis of shopping malls or Home Depot layouts; no literary texts are required. Teen culture can be explored through music, film, and computer games. Current social mores and cultural constraints can be profitably studied by examining Internet discourse. And so on. Everything, after all, can be a text and so why not a golf course? A skating rink? A theme park? "Professor X," I read in the Bulletin of a leading university, "specializes in 20th-century American literature, film and cultural studies. . . . She has begun a . . . book-length project that reads important post-World War II Hollywood films as public relations maneuvers, with which the studios sought to create a benign impression of a beleaguered industry and to shape the nation’s social and economic agenda during the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy."

Such studies are regularly designated as "interdisciplinary," but

what are the different disciplines involved in this latter case? If the critic can convincingly demonstrate that a film like Samuel Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is a ‘public relations maneuver," designed to mask ‘the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy’, then the discipline in question is cultural history in keeping with the critic’s primary purpose, which is to unmask a particular social and economic agenda. Related disciplines applied might be economics and political science–specifically, the trauma of postwar reintegration for those whose "best years" were, ironically enough, on the battlefield where they could perform the heroic actions denied to them in their prior peacetime existence.

But there is one discipline that clearly isn’t involved here and that is literature–or, for that matter, film–as artistic practice. For if we asked a few hard questions about character portrayal and narrative structure in Best Years, we would have to conclude that it reduces the complexity of human motivation to a few kitchy stereotypes: the three war veterans–Al (Frederick Marsh), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell), for example, too neatly represent upper, middle, and lower class ethos respectively, and each, in his own way, turns out to have a heart of gold. Yes, all three veterans and their families have trouble "adjusting," but in the end the young Naval seaman Homer, who has lost both of his hands in the war, marries his high school sweetheart, even as banker Al’s daughter Peggy is planning to marry Fred, the former decorated Air Force bombardier who undergoes a bout of unemployment and divorce from his no-good party girl of a wife, but, at film’s end, is about to use his flight skills to go into the building industry and live happily ever after with the adoring Peggy, in close touch, no doubt, with her sensitive and caring parents.

This Happy Ending may indeed be studied sociologically as Hollywood’s way of trying to cushion the blow of postwar malaise and improve the morale of ex-servicemen and their families, but as a work of art, Best Years is hardly in a class with such war films as René Clair’s La Grande Illusion or Marcel Ophuls’s stunning documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. How and why this is the case would be interesting to study, but you won’t find this happening in a course on postwar Hollywood film of the sort described. Such a course may be interesting and valuable but there is nothing the least bit interdisciplinary about it; it is, to put it accurately, otherdisciplinary. And while we are exposing hidden agendas, as the discussion of Best Years claims to do, it should be clear that the hidden assumption behind this sort of study is that there is nothing peculiarly literaryor in this case, filmic, anyway, that in literature the form is merely a conduit for a meaning above and beyond it, the vehicle for ideological statement. And as such, the study of poetry or film or drama is difficult to justify as more than an after-school "extra." For surely if the object is to learn how U.S. culture was restructured in the postwar years, there are more accurate indicators than individual Hollywood movies.

Let me give a second example, this time from a scholarly paper given by the admired historian, Martin Jay, who is probably best known for his biographical study of Theodor Adorno. The essay, delivered at a recent conference on the avant-garde at Notre Dame (April 2000) and part of a book-length study, is called "Diving into the Wreck: Aesthetic Spectator-ship at the Turn of the Millenium." The title refers, of course, to Adrienne Rich’s well-known poem, of which more in a moment, as well as to the recent box-office smash hit Titanic. Jay’s argument is that, whereas in earlier artworks , the concept of aesthetic distance was still operative, today, spectators or readers are not satisfied unless they are themselves involved in the events depicted, unless, in other words, they can be made to feel they are actually touching the wreck of the Titanic or experiencing the violence of battle inSaving Private Ryan, unless, in other words, the distance between narrative and spectator, and hence author and spectator can be broken down, all of us longing to share the pornographic or violent or ecstatic moment rather as nineteenth-century Methodists participated in the frenzy of the Great Revival. In Rich’s poem, the narrator is described as putting on her flippers and diving suit and descending to the ocean floor so as to actually witness the "wreck" of would-be lovers in our time. "I am he, I am she," pronounces the androgynous poet, able to participate in both male and female experience and suffering.

What does all this have to do with the avant-garde? The link, according to Jay, is that the avant-garde was itself prone to violence. The Italian Futurists, for example, celebrated speed and technology: the speed and frenzy of the overturned motor car described in Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909) as a "beautiful shark" "running on its powerful fins," the screech of traffic or aerial bombardment, and especially, again in Marinetti’s manifesto, the celebration of war as the "world’s only hygiene" -- war, as the ultimate experience in which aesthetic spectatorship becomes active participation. Not catharsis (Aristotle) but ecstasis (Longinus).

The difficulty here is that the word "aesthetic" has shifted ground. Why is the spectatorship of the film Titanic designated as aesthetic ? Here is a film that seems to come as close as one possibly can to the product of the culture industry as the Frankfurt School defined it–a packaged product that wants to pretend that the shipwreck somehow shows us what was wrong with class stratification in the pre-War period. From my own perspective–and I confess to only having seen Titanic on the TV screen–it has about as much to do with "art" as does the roller coaster at Magic Mountain. And I felt similarly about Jay’s other examples. As for Rich’s "Diving into the Wreck," whatever one thinks of this poem, it is hard to make a case for it as emblematic of the avant-garde, it being a poem instantly celebrated, cited, indeed packaged and commodified as a major feminist statement.

But even if we could take Jay’s contemporary examples as somehow representative of contemporary "aesthetic spectatorship," what about Futurism? In recent years, Futurism has become synonymous with the cult of violence, speed, thrill-seeking, war-mongering, and so on. Is this what Futurism really was? In study after study, Marinetti’s first manifesto–and occasionally his later ones or even his bellicose prose poem Zang Tumb Tuum of 1914 are taken as a synecdoche, pure and simple, of Futurism. Yet the fact is that we would probably not even study Futurism, the movement, were it not for the work in the visual arts that has become classic.

Consider Giacomo Balla’s The Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences of 1913 [figure 1]. The image, inspired as is so much of Balla’s Futurist painting and drawing, by Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography;

gives us different and contradictory perspectives on the flight of a swallow. In his 1915 manifesto Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, which he wrote with Fortunato Depero, Balla explained that he had begun this and related works "by studying the speed of automobiles, and in so doing discovered the laws and essential force-lines of speed." 16 In Swifts, the lower part of the sequence is seen from above; in the middle tier, the same sequence is seen obliquely, and then, in the upper part, it is seen from the side. It is this view which creates what Balla calls the "course line," in other words, the kinetic profile of the wing beat of the swallow. In depicting the birds’ flight from two or more points of view, the painting’s flat surface calls into question the three-dimensionality of the image. But what makes the composition especially stunning is that the fluid ellipses marking flight are contained within a set of carefully plotted verticals and triangles, geometrical forms and curves in various shades of pink, umber, yellow, black, and white set in tension with one another.

How does aesthetic spectatorship function in such a painting? However dizzying the abstracted motion of flight within the tri-partite structure, the painting is one of balance and containment: the horizontal curves balanced by the rectangular force lines and the color field carefully modulated so that we have gradations from black to light yellow to pink repeated throughout. The spectator, far from being absorbed into the canvas’s "violence," can contemplate it from the outside even as s/he might contemplate a painting by Manet or by Turner. Violence and speed, in other words, are distanced in what is a formal, semi-abstract composition.

"Do not forget," said Wittgenstein in a memorable aphorism collected in his card index published as Zettel, "that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information." 17 The distinction here, as I have argued in Wittgenstein’s Ladder, is not quite Roman Jakobson’s distinction (characteristic of Russian Formalism) between ordinary and literary language–a distinction that will not hold up to scrutiny as Stanley Fish has argued in a well-known essay called "How Ordinary is Ordinary Language." 18 Wittgenstein knows well enough that there are no essentialist definitions of "literary language," but he also recognizes that poeticity depends upon a language use quite different from that of providing information. And here the first three classifications of poetics I listed above come in.

In order to understand, say, the Balla painting in question, the formal features of the work must be studied from various perspectives. First the arena of forms. What was Futurist painting? How did it relate to the Impressionist painting that preceded it. How does nationality (Italian versus French Impressionist) factor in? How does the formal status of the painting relate to the poetry, performance art, and musical composition of the period, especially in view of the close coordination, in this particular movement, between poets and painters, poets and composers as well as architects.

These are questions of art history and genre. Now, zeroing in, what about this particular painting? How does it relate to Balla’s earlier and later works? To comparable paintings in other cultures? To works done in other media–drawing, water color, sculpture, architecture? And questions of value: does the painting work? Does it, in Ezra Pound’s words, constitute news that stays news? What is its relation to its audience? Here rhetoric comes in. What is the ethical argument of this painting? Its pathetic argument? To whom does it speak and why? And who might such a painting exclude? Why, for example–and here we move from the formal to the cultural–did the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr, relegate Futurist painting to the basement along with Dada and Surrealist works, even as he featured Cubism and Abstract Art, Picasso and Mondrian?

I believe that all these are questions no undergraduate or graduate student studying art or literature would fail to find interesting. But they are not easy to deal with and there are no shortcuts to understanding the issues. A miniseries on Futurism won’t do it, for the premise of TV miniseries is that no prior knowledge is required. The "view" of Futurism thus likely to emerge–Marinetti and his fellow Futurists in black coats and derby hats expounding the gospel of speed or throwing leaflets from the clock tower in Venice–can be little more than entertainment. The Futuristic curved skyscrapers of Antonio Sant’Elia (killed in the War in his early twenties), for example, make little sense in the cliched violence-cum-speed context in which "Futurism" is regularly received. 19

Indeed, what is urgently needed in the "Humanities" today is more knowledge of actual art works and a great emphasis on induction. Philosophical criticism has been deeply wedded to deduction and to exemplication of a narrow kind. Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde is a classic example of such exemplification. In positing that the avant-garde (which Bürger seems to equate with a few Dada and Surrealist works, for instance Duchamp’s Fountain), failed because it did not succeed in overturning the bourgeois institution of art as autonomous, Bürger makes no mention of the Russian avant-garde which is arguably the very core of avant-gardism in the early twentieth-century, the one avant-garde that fused, at least briefly, the radical aesthetic and the political critique that Bürger takes as a requisite of genuine avant-garde activity. 20 And even Adorno’s aesthetic theory is limited in its applications because of its unabashed and extreme Eurocentrism, coupled with the unstated assumption that nineteenth and twentieth century fictions and poems are normative, so far as theory is concerned. When, for example, we read in Adorno’s "On Lyric Poetry and Society," that "My thesis is that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism," and that "the objective world that produces the lyric is an inherently antagonistic world," 21 one wonders, not only about Renaissance poetry or about the great poetries as Chinese and Japanese renga or haiku, but also about a theory that demotes Heine to a rung below Baudelaire because the former "surrendered more willingly to the flow of things; he took a poetic technique of reproduction, as it were, that corresponded to the industrial age and applied it to the conventional romantic archetypes, but he did not find archetypes of modernity." 22

It is interesting, in this regard, to see how differently Classical theory operated. Plato’s notion of what it is poetry does to move its audience was based on the example of Homer, who, so Plato thought, represented quintessential poetry more fully than any of his rival poets. Similarly, Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy in the Poetics ("A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is heroic, complete, and of a certain magnitude…") is based on the examination of virtually dozens of compositions calling themselves "tragedies," that exhibited such and such features. It is, for example, because Greek tragedy did invariably include music and dance that Aristotle listed melos and opsis among its six elements and felt he had to examine their function.

I am well aware that Plato and Aristotle, Longinus and Horace. had a much smaller corpus to deal with than does the Adorno of "On Lyric Poetry and Society." And indeed, the literary field is now so vast, heterogenous, and eclectic that it is obviously impossible to make choices, to decide on which artworks to concentrate, and how to organize meaningful curricula. Given the acknowledged "crisis in the humanities," which is my topic here, perhaps the best alternative (and there are no ideal ones) is to begin with the twin study of theory ("What is poetry? and then study closely actual poems being written in the present so as to answer the question, "Is X a good poem?" Obviously the second question can’t be answered without reading earlier poems, and this is how the literary past becomes an object of study. Students can be taught, early on, what the issues of analyzing poetry are; they can be taught narrative modes and lyric genres, the tropes and rhetorical figures to be found in any written text, the possibilities for rhythm and meter, "poetry" and "prose." In musicology and art history, such study is taken for granted: no one is likely to make pronouncements about a particular symphony who cannot read a score or know the parts of the orchestra. But in poetics, we tend to assume that there is no vocabulary to master, that anyone can, after all, read a book.

The first step, then, would be to make clear that anyone can’t in fact read critically, which is to say, actively, that reading takes training. And that the methods learned, applied to one’s own literature for starters and then to the really exciting literature of the past–allowing that past to be flexible, not confined to a narrow canon-- will make the student see how language works in a given poem or play or novel. And language, which is, after all, the material of literature, as well as the means to its fictiveness, will be the central object of study. Such study, I believe, will come back into favor for the simple reason that one cannot seem to stamp out the aesthetic instinct, try as one may. Just last week (8 April 2000), the New York Times carried an article about the "revival" of interest in Marcel Proust. Not only are there two new monumental biographies (by Jean-Yves Tadié [1997] and William H. Carter [2000]), but there are Proust study groups recently formed both in San Francisco and New York. But of course this is not, properly speaking, a "revival" but a "survival." Proust won’t go away because A La Recherche du temps perdu is an encyclopedia of narrative forms, of complex language constructions, of a vision of the Third Republic, as well, as a psychological analysis of love and jealousy incomparable in its richness and detail. There may be little blips in the Proust radar screen–now he is up, now down in the polls–but the oeuvre is there, continuing to challenge readers.

In Chapter 4 of the Poetics, Aristotle discusses aesthetic pleasure, specifically the two pleasures he takes to be associated with art works in whatever medium–the "pleasure of representation" and the "pleasure of recognition":

Speaking generally, poetry seems to owe its origin to two particular causes, both natural. From childhood men have an instinct for representation, and in this respect man differs from the other animals in that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things. And then there is the enjoyment people always get from representations. (1448b).

The pleasure of representation is the basic human instinct one can observe most directly in young children who "play" at being someone else, who make up a story and pass it off as "true." It is the pleasure of invention, of fictiveness. The twin pleasure, that of recognition, is its mirror image, the pleasure of taking in the impersonations, fictions, and language creations of others and recognizing their justice. When, for example, Prufrock concludes his "love song" with the line, "Till human voices wake us and we drown," the most unPrufrockian of us will recognize the aptness of the metaphor.

Pleasure was paramount for Aristotle as it was for the Plato, who banished the poets from the Republic because their work produced too much pleasure in its audience . But of course the pleasure calculus is complex: "one should not seek," we read in Poetics XIV, "from tragedy all kinds of pleasure but that which peculiar to tragedy, and since the poet must by ‘representation’ produce the pleasure which comes from feeling pity and fear, obviously this quality must be embodied in the incidents" (1453b). Catharsis, the purgation of pity and fear, is not an end in itself; it is a particular kind of poetic pleasure. And so on.

It is, I would argue, the contemporary fear and subordination of the pleasures of representation and recognition –the pleasures of the fictive, the what might happen to the what has happened--the historical/cultural-- that has trivialized the status of literary study in the academy today. If, for an aesthete like Walter Pater, art was always approaching the condition of music, in our current scheme of things, art is always–and monotonously-- approaching the condition of "culture." Indeed, the neoPuritan notion that literature and the other arts must be somehow "useful," and only useful, that the Ciceronian triad —docere, movere, delectare– should renounce its third element ("delight") and even the original meaning of its second element, so that to move means only to move readers to some kind of virtuous action, has produced a climate in which it has become increasingly difficult to justify the study of English or Comparative Literature.

Given this climate, we are now witnessing a deep pessimism, expressed in various jeremiads as to the death of humanistic studies in our time. In a recent essay "The Humanities–At Twilight?", George Steiner argues that in contemporary technocratic mass culture, there may, alas, be no room at all for the humanities:

Democracy and economic-distributive justice on a democratic plane are no friend to the autistic, often arcane, always demanding enterprise of ‘high culture’. . . . Add to this the failures, the collaborative treasons of the clerics, of the arts, of the humanities in the fullest sense, during the long night of this century in Europe and Russia. Add to this the fundamental doubt . . . as to whether the humanities humanize, and the thrust of the crisis is inescapable." 23

Interestingly, Steiner’s elegiac essay never refers to a single work of art written since World War II: Adorno’s adage that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz seems to be taken as a given. This retro Kulturdrang strikes me as just as misplaced as Weisbuch’s "how-to" practicalities. For the fact is that one cannot kill the basic human instinct to make poetry–the German verb Dichten is apposite here--and to enjoy the poetry making of others: indeed, the study of poetry has been with us much longer than any of those current academic orthodoxies Steiner deplores, and it will continue to be with us. Some things, it seems, never quite collapse. Let me conclude with a little Frank O’Hara poem that is nicely apropos:

Lana Turner has collapsed!

I was trotting along and suddenly

it started raining and snowing

and you said it was hailing

but hailing hits you on the head

hard so it was really snowing and

raining and I was in such a hurry

to meet you but the traffic

was acting exactly like the sky

and suddenly I see a headline


there is no snow in Hollywood

there is no rain in California

I have been to lots of parties

and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed

oh Lana Turner we love you get up 24


1 Robert Weisbuch, "Six Proposals to Revive the Humanities," Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 March 1999, B4-5.

2 In a follow-up article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Weisbuch outlines more fully his plan for "aggressively promulgating the value of what we do in [the humanities]." The Woodrow Wilson’s new project, "Unleashing the Humanities: The Doctorate Beyond the Academy," with a budget of about $100,000, will award grants to academic departments that "encourage students to interact with the world as part of their graduate training." A second program will award up to 30 grants of $1,500 each to support doctoral students who are using their training in a non-academic setting. The third program seeks to match top doctoral students with companies, schools, and other employers that can offer them ‘meaningful’ positions outside academe." See Denise K. Magner, "Finding new Paths for Ph.D.’s in the Humanities," Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 April 1999, pp. A 16-17.

3 See, for example, Brigitte Hamann, Hitler’s Vienna, trans. Thomas Thornton (New York: Oxford, 1999), p. 62.

4See Randal Johnson, Introduction, Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 7.

5Cited by Patrick Healy, "Today’s News," Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 September 1999, internet version at

6 According to the OED, literature (from the Latin littera or letter of the alphabet) as "Literary work or production; the activity or profession of a man of letters; the realm of letters," was first used by Samuel Johnson in the Life of Cowley (1779): "An Author whose pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly set high in the ranks of literature." The more restricted sense of literature, as a "writing what has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect" does not appear until 1812. Literature, in the sense of "the body of books and writings that treat a particular subject" is first found in 1860.

7 Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Cicero, Brutus, trans. G. L. Hendrickson (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1952); Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 4 vos. Trans. H. E. Butler (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1921-22).

8 Groupe Mu, Rhetorique générale (Paris: 1970).

9 To be published by the University of Chicago Press, 2001. A sequel to Guillory’s Cultural Capital, the book has no final title as yet; I read it in manuscript for various grant applications.

10Michel Meyer, Questions de rhétorique: langage, raison et séduction (Paris, 1993; Nancy S. Struever, "Rhetoric: Historical and Conceptual Overview," Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 4 vols. ed. Michael Kelly, Volume 4 (New York: Oxford, 1998), pp. 151-55, esp. p. 155.

11 Roman Jakobson, "Marginal Notes on the Prose of the Poet Pasternak" (1935), in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 301-17.

12Here is a partial list of project titles at the Stanford Humanities Center for 1998-99: "The Pathological Public Sphere" (Mark Seltzer, English), "Ethnography before Ethnography: Fabricating Ethnographic Objects within Medieval Christendom" (Kathleen Biddick, History), "Oaxaca and the New World Baroque" (Cynthia Steele, Romance Languages), "Navigating Diaspora" (Donald Carter, Anthropology), "Desiring Machines: American Minimal Music As Cultural Practice" (Robert Fink, Musicology), "Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Premodern England" (Ruth Nissé, English), "The Pro-choice Mistake (and Another Defense of Access to Abortion)" (Laurie Shrage, Philosophy).

13 Aristotle, Poetics, trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe (Cambridge: Harvard: Loeb Classics, 1960), pp. 36-37. I have translated the word philosophoteron as "philosophical" rather than "scientific," which is misleading. Otherwise, I stick to the Fyfe translation, designating the traditional numbers for paragraphs.

14 Plato, Republic, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, trans. Lane Cooper at al.. Corrected. Ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), #387b, my emphasis. I give the standard paragraph number rather than page since there are so many translations and editions of Republic.

15 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

16 See Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, "Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe" (1915), in Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio; trans. Robert Brain et. al. (New York: The Viking Press, 1970), p. 197.

17 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 197), #160, p. 28.

18 See Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 51-80; Stanley Fish, "How Ordinary Is Ordinary Language?", New Literary History 5 (1973), special issue "What Is Literature?": 4154; reprinted in revised form in Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge and London: Harvard University press, 1980), pp. 97-111.

19 See, on this question, Esther Da Costa Meyer’s fascinating The Work of Antonio Sant’Elia: Retreat into the Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

20 See Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse, trans. Michael Shaw, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), esp. Chapter 3.

21 See Theodor W. Adorno, "On Lyric Poetry and Society," Notes to Literature, Vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 37-54, esp. p. 45.

22 Adorno, "Heine the Wound," Notes on Literature, pp. 80-85; esp. p. 82.

23 George Steiner, "The Humanities–At Twilight?", P.N. Review, 25, no. 4 (March-April 1999): 23. The essay (pp. 18-24) was originally presented as a lecture at Boston University on 2 April 1998.

24Frank O’Hara, "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)," The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1995), p. 449. | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage