December 12, 2017

QotD: The development of all the various university “studies” departments

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Education, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

After the 1960s cultural revolution, it was clear that the humanities had become too insular and removed from social concerns and that they had to reincorporate a more historical perspective. There were many new subject areas of contemporary interest that needed to be added to the curriculum — sex and gender, film, African-American and Native American studies among them. But the entire humanities curriculum urgently demanded rethinking. The truly radical solution would have been to break down the departmental structure that artificially separated, for example, English departments from French departments and German departments. Bringing all literature together as one field would have created a much more open, flexible format to encourage interdisciplinary exploration, such as cross-fertilizations of literature with the visual arts and music. Furthermore, I wanted an authentic multiculturalism, a curriculum that affirmed the value and achievements of Western civilization but expanded globally to include other major civilizations, all of which would be studied in their chronological unfolding. Even though I am an atheist, I have always felt that comparative religion, a study of the great world religions over time, including all aspects of their art, architecture, rituals, and sacred texts, was the best way to teach authentic multiculturalism and achieve world understanding. Zen Buddhism was in the air in the 1960s as part of the legacy of the post-war Beat movement, and Hinduism entered the counterculture through the London scene, partly because of Ravi Shankar, a master of the sitar who performed at California’s Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

However, these boundary-dissolving expansions were unfortunately not the route taken by American academe in the 1970s. Instead, new highly politicized departments and programs were created virtually overnight — without the incremental construction of foundation and superstructure that had gone, for example, into the long development of the modern English department. The end result was a further balkanization in university structure, with each area governed as an autonomous fiefdom and with its ideological discourse frozen at the moment of that unit’s creation. Administrators wanted these programs and fast — to demonstrate the institution’s “relevance” and to head off outside criticism or protest that could hamper college applications and the influx of desirable tuition dollars. Basically, administrators threw money at these programs and let them find their own way. When Princeton University, perhaps the most cloistered and overtly sexist of the Ivy League schools, went coeducational after 200 years in 1969, it needed some women faculty to soften the look of the place. So it hastily shopped around for whatever women faculty could be rustled up, located them mostly in English departments at second-tier schools, brought them on board, and basically let them do whatever they wanted, with no particular design. (Hey, they’re women — they can do women’s studies!)

I maintain, from my dismayed observation at the time, that these new add-on programs were rarely if ever founded on authentic scholarly principles; they were public relations gestures meant to stifle criticism of a bigoted past. In designing any women’s studies program, for example, surely a basic requirement for students should be at least one course in basic biology, so that the role of hormones in human development could be investigated — and rejected, if necessary. But no, both women’s studies and later gender studies evolved without reference to science and have thus ensured that their ideology remains partisan and one-dimensional, stressing the social construction of gender. Any other view is regarded as heresy and virtually never presented to students even as an alternative hypothesis.

Today’s campus political correctness can ultimately be traced to the way those new programs, including African-American and Native American studies, were so hastily constructed in the 1970s, a process that not only compromised professional training in those fields over time but also isolated them in their own worlds and thus ultimately lessened their wider cultural impact. I believe that a better choice for academic reform would have been the decentralized British system traditionally followed at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which offered large subject areas where a student could independently pursue his or her special interest. In any case, for every new department or program added to the U.S. curriculum, there should have been a central shared training track, introducing students to the methodology of research and historiography, based in logic and reasoning and the rigorous testing of conclusions based on evidence. Neglect of that crucial training has meant that too many college teachers, then and now, lack even the most superficial awareness of their own assumptions and biases. Working on campus only with the like-minded, they treat dissent as a mortal offense that must be suppressed, because it threatens their entire career history and world-view. The ideology of those new programs and departments, predicated on victimology, has scarcely budged since the 1970s. This is a classic case of the deadening institutionalization and fossilization of once genuinely revolutionary ideas.

Camille Paglia, “The Modern Campus Has Declared War on Free Speech”, Heat Street, 2016-05-09.

August 21, 2017

QotD: The (long-running) decline of written science fiction

Filed under: Books, Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The problem with the Rabbits is not that left-wing politics is dessicating and poisoning their fiction. While I have made the case elsewhere that SF is libertarian at its core, it nevertheless remains possible to write left-wing message SF that is readable, enjoyable, and of high quality – Iain Banks’s Culture novels leap to mind as recent examples, and we can refer back to vintage classics such as Pohl & Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants for confirmation. Nor, I think, is the failure of Rabbit fiction to engage most SF fans and potential fans mainly down to its politics; I think the Evil League is prone to overestimate the popular appeal of their particular positions here.

No, I judge that what is dessicating and poisoning the Rabbit version of SF is something distinct from left-wing political slant but co-morbid with it: colonization by English majors and the rise of literary status envy as a significant shaping force in the field.

This is a development that’s easy to mistake for a political one because of the accidental fact that most university humanities departments have, over the last sixty years or so, become extreme-left political monocultures. But, in the language of epidemiology, I believe the politics is a marker for the actual disease rather than the pathogen itself. And it’s no use to fight the marker organism rather than the actual pathogen.

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.

November 3, 2016

QotD: How culture is spread in theory and in practice

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

If mediation is necessary for the average person to understand art (and sometimes it is), then this mediation is available in profusion via the same channels as the arts themselves. The local library, your parents, friends, the internet, book clubs, private teachers, interested amateurs … the list goes on and on. These are the vectors by which “culture” is injected into society. We learn culture from the artists and from our fellow men, not from learned dons who sit around stroking their beards and fretting about the malign influence of the hegemonic white-male patriarchy.

“But the internet is full of lies, mistakes, craziness, and utter junk!” the humanities profs might reply.

This is true. But this is also true of university humanities departments. At least YouTube won’t charge you thirty grand a year to teach you nonsense.

Most university liberal arts programs are not really about the arts; they are about politics as expressed through art. These politics are nearly unanimously leftist, and even worse disdain the very social and cultural constructs that gave birth to the “liberal arts” in the first place: literacy, religious belief, cultural confidence, and the notion of excellence in artistic execution as well as artistic intent. The purpose of instruction in many cases is not to teach why this or that work of art is great; the intent is to instead subvert the work and show why it is not great (because the artist is too white, too male, too European, too far outside the Progressive political frame to be acceptable to correctly-thinking people).

These are the wages of relativism and deconstructionism and “critical theory”: there is no magnetic north the artistic compass can point to. There is no way to navigate this ocean. All the humanities professor can say is that since one point is as good as any other, maybe it’s better to just stay where you are. If you must move, any random direction is pretty much the same — there’s no real destination, so you can never be lost. This theory of the arts asks little and returns little; it nourishes neither life nor spirit. Perhaps this is why the humanities courses in universities are dying out.

Monty, “DOOM (culturally speaking)”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-10-28.

August 8, 2016

The legacy of the Loeb Classical Library editions

Filed under: Books, Education, Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

While I sometimes feel old enough to have construed Latin in school, it departed the curriculum a few years before I reached high school. As a result, while I was vaguely aware of the Loeb Classical Library, I never had a need to obtain or depend on them for my academic career (thank goodness). Back in 2011, John Talbot described them as the “bright ghosts of antiquity” for New Criterion:

The gist of an old joke — it has a dozen local iterations — is that the Loeb Classical Library translations are so baffling that you have to consult the original Greek or Latin on the left-hand page to decipher the English translation on the right.

Funny or not, the wisecrack catches the condescension long directed at the Loebs, that venerable series of Greek and Latin classics in uniform volumes with facing English translations. Professors of classics in particular used to frown upon them. Until recently, merely to be seen on campus with a Loeb was to court scandal. There were gradations of disgrace. Those Loeb editions of Boethius, Bede, and Augustine I saw on the shelves of the professor who taught me Anglo-Saxon: those were permissible for an English scholar. But I, as a classics major, was to eschew the very same volumes. Even as an undergraduate, though I prized my Loeb edition of The Republic, edited and imaginatively annotated by Paul Shorey, I knew better than bring it to my seminar on Plato. That same tact — that same hypocrisy — accounts for the care I took, as a graduate student, to avoid detection as I sifted the used bookshops of Cambridge for second-hand Loebs. For many of us, the pleasure we took in the Loebs was tinged with guilt.

But attitudes are changing. Once treated as evidence of the decline of Western civilization, the Loeb Classical Library is now, in its centennial year, more often regarded as, if not quite a pillar of our culture, at least one of its more enduring and useful props. The centenary invites consideration of how the Loebs have both reflected and, increasingly, shaped our literary culture.

First, to deal with that joke: Are the Loeb translations really so convoluted? They are not. What is true, though not true enough to justify the slur, is that some of the translations, especially those of the Library’s first few decades, do make hard going for the reader, not because they are incomprehensible but because they are written in one of two different varieties of translationese. About the first kind, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer got it right when he complained that the 1913 Loeb Catullus was translated not into English exactly, but that other dialect, “the construing lingo beloved of schoolboys, but abhorred by man and gods.” He had in mind such clunking touches as “remains to be slept the sleep of one unbroken night” for Catullus’ suave nox est perpetua una dormienda, a solution which confirms, as though to satisfy a schoolteacher, the translator’s grasp of the future perfect passive, whatever the cost to English idiom.

H/T to Never Yet Melted for the link.

March 26, 2016

QotD: The “Futurians” – the rise of the “New Wave” in science fiction

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Hard SF was an art form that made stringent demands on both author and reader. Stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology wrong. The Campbellian demand was that SF work both as story and as science, with only a bare minimum of McGuffins like FTL star drives permitted; hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both internally and with known science about the real world.

The New Wave rejected all this for reasons that were partly aesthetic and partly political. For there was a political tradition that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by its chief theoretician (Campbell himself) and his right-hand man Robert Heinlein, the inventor of modern SF’s characteristic technique of exposition by indirection. That tradition was of ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion.


The New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one. Its inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.

But the New Wave was not, in fact, the first revolt against hard SF. In the 1950s, a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York had invented sociological S.F. (exemplified by the Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants). Not until decades later did the participants admit that many of the key Futurians were then ideological Communists or fellow travellers, but their work was half-understood at the time to be strong criticism of the consumer capitalism and smugness of the post-World-War-II era.


The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also reverted to the libertarian/individualist values traditional in the field. This time around, with libertarian thinking twenty years more developed, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the libertarian impulse was more explicit. At one extreme, some SF (such as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged, notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.

Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein’s legacy. Heinlein himself maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but counted himself a libertarian for more than a decade before his death in 1988.

Heinlein’s evolution from Goldwater conservative to anti-statist radical both led and reflected larger trends. By 1989 depictions of explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies were beginning to filter into mainstream SF work like Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time. Haldeman’s Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.

Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.

July 9, 2015

The “best novels” list … from 1898

Filed under: Books, History — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Top ten and top 100 lists are everywhere, it seems, but just how useful are they? In the Times Literary Supplement blog, Michael Caines shared a list from more than a hundred years back, showing what the compiler of that year thought were the “best” novels:

Is it true, as Samuel Johnson declared, that nothing “odd”, in literary terms, will last? As mentioned a while ago, for a certain well-placed critic, writing in 1898, that odd book Tristram Shandy could not be considered among the hundred best novels ever written. Now here’s what he actually thought were the best.

Sometime editor of the Illustrated London News, an authority on the Brontës and Napoleon, Clement K. Shorter was in the middle of a flourishing career when this list appeared in the monthly journal called The Bookman. He doesn’t explain what exactly makes a book one of the “best”, only that he has deliberately limited himself to one novel per novelist. Living authors are excluded – although he cannot resist adding a rider of eight works by “writers whose reputations are too well established for their juniors to feel towards them any sentiments other than those of reverence and regard”. In fact, I’d say if he’d been trying to prophesy what would still be regarded as a classic a century later, Shorter’s shorter list is more proportionally successful than his longer one.

As intended, Shorter’s list might still serve as an “actual incentive” to discovery, as he hoped, for “the youthful student of literature” (one to put next to David Bowie’s, maybe) at least partly because of what seem now to be its many oddities. People have become less hesitant, for example, before praising the living (the more junior the better) and, one suspects, less willing to praise P. G. Hamerton’s Marmorne. I’m not sure Bracebridge Hall is even in print on this side of the Atlantic. And would you have chosen Silas Marner over Middlemarch?

It’s just a list, of course, and Shorter acknowledged that others could probably come up with “numerous omissions”. It’s curious to see what we might call classic or canonical novels among the works they’ve outlasted, though. Praise for, say, Jane Austen might have echoed down the centuries, but this doesn’t mean that we share the same aesthetic values as readers who praised her in the early nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

It’s difficult to imagine any except the most foolhardy of readers reading every book on Shorter’s list now, let alone agreeing with him. In John Sutherland’s compendious Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, however, may be found informed summary views of many of the lesser-known names below – see the parenthetical quotations for the ones that interested me.

For that full 1898 flavour, names and dates are as Shorter gives them.

July 4, 2015

QotD: Literary status envy and the “deep norms” of SF

Filed under: Books, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.

Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.

June 27, 2015

American literacy and the unanticipated boost that was World War 2

Filed under: Books, History, Military, USA, WW2 — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Terry Teachout makes the unusual claim that it was the Second World War that “made America literate”:

It’s said that two things about war are insufficiently appreciated by those who, like me, have not known it first-hand: 1) It is, when not terrifying, mostly dull, and 2) it is, like all human enterprises, subject to the operation of the law of unintended consequences. Few aspects of World War II better illustrate both of these points than the Armed Services Editions publishing project. Between 1943 and 1947, the U.S. Army and Navy distributed some 123 million newly printed paperback copies of 1,322 different books to American servicemen around the world. These volumes, which were given out for free, were specifically intended to entertain the soldiers and sailors to whom they were distributed, and by all accounts they did so spectacularly well. But they also transformed America’s literary culture in ways that their wartime publishers only partly foresaw — some of which continue to be felt, albeit in an attenuated fashion, to this day.


Thus, the Armed Services Editions, which were published by a civilian organization called the Council on Books in Wartime — compact, oblong, two-column-wide paperbacks that were designed to slip easily into the pockets of a uniform. They were sold to the military for six cents per volume. Since books were regarded by the U.S. government as “weapons in the war of ideas,” the military specified that nothing would be published that might “give aid and comfort to the enemy, or which may be detrimental to our own war effort,” or that was not in accord with “the spirit of American democracy.” Still, it was the Council on Books in Wartime, not the military, that chose the titles, and while a few of the longer ones were abridged, none were censored.

The first ASEs were shipped in September of 1943. About 155,000 crates of books were subsequently distributed each month. Each crate contained between 30 and 50 new titles that fell into one of the following categories:

  • Mysteries, thrillers, and Western novels by such popular writers as Max Brand, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, W.R. Burnett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and Luke Short.
  • Bestselling “blockbuster” novels, such as Henry Bellamann’s Kings Row, Edna Ferber’s So Big, Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, many of which had been or would soon be turned into movies.
  • Collections by humorists and writers of light verse, including five titles by Robert Benchley, six by James Thurber, and three by Ogden Nash.
  • War-themed books like Bill Mauldin’s Up Front and Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men.
  • Biographies, histories, memoirs, and other nonfiction titles, including Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Virgil Thomson’s The State of Music, and Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin.
  • Classic novels and poetry, some easily accessible (David Copperfield, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), others less so (Moby-Dick, Vanity Fair).
  • A modest but not exiguous complement of “serious” modern novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, most of them representative of then-current mainstream taste (Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men) but some of which were decidedly recherché (Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men, Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet)

As this list suggests, the ASEs were intended to please a broadly popular audience. But even the bestsellers tended to be more elevated in tone than their present-day counterparts (Somerset Maugham was represented by five novels, John P. Marquand by six). And it was taken for granted that each crate of books would always contain two or three genuinely challenging titles. The first series of ASEs, for instance, included Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Herman Melville’s Typee, and H.L. Mencken’s Heathen Days. Such books were “sold” to skeptical readers with enticing flap copy, as in the case of the ASE edition of The Great Gatsby: “Its pages are filled with masterly realism, melodramatic action, searing irony, and swift romance…Here is a story that is American to the core.”

In any case, it scarcely mattered what the Council on Books in Wartime printed, for all of the ASEs were hugely popular among servicemen, so much so that they were frequently torn into pieces so that they could be shared more easily. A.J. Liebling, who covered the war in Europe for the New Yorker, even saw them on the beaches of Normandy after D-Day. “These little books are a great thing,” a Brooklyn infantryman told him. “They take you away.”

August 26, 2014

QotD: Bonfire of the humanities

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

About 15 years ago, John Heath and I coauthored Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, a pessimistic warning about where current trends would take classics in particular and the humanities in general. It was easy enough then to identify the causes of the implosion. At the very time the protocols of the universities were proving unsustainable — more expensive administrators and non-teaching personnel, soaring tuition hikes, vast non-instructional expenditures in student services and social recreation, more release time for full professors, greater exploitation of part-time teachers, and more emphasis on practical education — the humanities had turned against themselves in the fashion of an autoimmune disease.

For example, esoteric university press publications, not undergraduate teaching and advocacy, came to define the successful humanities professor. Literature, history, art, music, and philosophy classes — even if these courses retained their traditional course titles — became shells of their former selves, now focusing on race, class, and gender indictments of the ancient and modern Western worlds.

These trendy classes did the nearly impossible task of turning the plays of Euripides, the poetry of Dante, and the history of the Civil War into monotonous subjects. The result was predictable: cash-strapped students increasingly avoided these classes. Moreover, if humanists did not display enthusiasm for Western literature, ideas, and history, or, as advocates, seek to help students appreciate the exceptional wisdom and beauty of Sophocles or Virgil, why, then, would the Chairman of the Chicano Studies Department, the Assistant Dean of Social Science, the Associate Provost for Diversity, or the Professor of Accounting who Chaired the General Education Committee worry about the declining enrollments in humanities?


If the humanities could have adopted a worse strategy to combat these larger economic and cultural trends over the last decade, it would be hard to see how. In short, the humanities have been exhausted by a half-century of therapeutic “studies” courses: Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Environmental Studies, Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, Cultural Studies, and Gay Studies. Any contemporary topic that could not otherwise justify itself as literary, historical, philosophical, or cultural simply tacked on the suffix “studies” and thereby found its way into the curriculum.

These “studies” courses shared an emphasis on race, class, and gender oppression that in turn had three negative consequences. First, they turned the study of literature and history from tragedy to melodrama, from beauty and paradox into banal predictability, and thus lost an entire generation of students. Second, they created a climate of advocacy that permeated the entire university, as the great works and events of the past were distorted and enlisted in advancing contemporary political agendas. Finally, the university lost not just the students, but the public as well, which turned to other sources — filmmakers, civic organizations, non-academic authors, and popular culture — for humanistic study.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Death of the Humanities”, VDH’s Private Papers, 2014-01-28

August 19, 2014

Academic criticism kills everything it touches

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:57

In the LA Review of Books, Daniel Marc Janes explains why so much academic writing — especially literary criticism — is so tediously dust-dry and boring:

IN THE COURSE of this essay, I want to examine Geoff Dyer and his relationship with the academic establishment. The aforementioned relationship, I will go on to argue, has heretofore been an uneasy one, but the occurrence of a significant, apparently paradoxical event has provided the ideal research opportunity with which to conduct said examination. As I will reveal, this event — the organization of an academic conference in his honor — lays bare the manifest tensions in his work between a hostility to what he considers deadening academic analysis and a profound desire to get closer to his subject. The organization of my essay is as follows.

I cannot blame you if you have stopped reading by now; Geoff Dyer certainly would have. To Dyer, this kind of prose — with its pathological signposting and life-sucking verbosity — exemplifies all that is wrong with the academic world. In a 2011 New York Times column, he eviscerates a work of criticism for precisely these reasons: the art historian Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, whose long-windedness trickles down from its title.

But it is in 1998’s Out of Sheer Rage that Dyer truly gets his knives out. The book describes his failed attempts to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. As he drudges through a Longman Critical Reader on the author, he finds himself increasingly angered by its contents: trendy theoretical titles like “Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality” and “Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence.” He wonders:

    How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? […] writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.

In Dyer’s mind, the academic conference may be the worst offender of all. He goes on to describe his horror on meeting an academic who specialises in Rainer Maria Rilke:

    You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves.

May 27, 2014

Infantilizing university students

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:03

Robert and Araz Shibley say that the push for trigger warnings over a larger share of university course content will help to ensure that students remain unready for the stresses of real life after leaving the cloisters of academia:

When a college places limits on the topics their students can encounter, it effectively robs them of a complete education. To attend college is (or should be) to deliberately seek out an experience in which one will wrestle with humanity’s most serious issues. Students and professors must be able to discuss such topics like the adults they are. Trigger warning policies make this kind of discourse less likely to take place. Instead, they send the troubling message that professors should avoid ideas that could potentially spark an emotional response from their students, and they guarantee that the students who skip certain lectures or assignments will not receive the full benefit of the classroom experience.

This is of particular concern in fields where “triggering” subjects are likely to be important to the understanding of the subject matter; the warnings guarantee the result of a student body that is less informed and knowledgeable about the subject. Imagine attempting to lead a classroom discussion about, say, the Rape of Nanking in the context of a “trigger warning” campus. Virtually no detail of that or many other sorry chapters of human history is less than massively disturbing. Yet avoiding or glossing over the many distressing aspects of war — or, worse, allowing students to skip lessons on it altogether — will leave students with a very incomplete comprehension of the subject. As Conor Friedersdorf writes in his piece on trigger warnings, “Surely college students should know what’s coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. A huge part of it is a horror show. To spare us upset would require morphine.”


Prior to the 1960s, it was assumed that colleges and universities would stand in loco parentis (in the place of the parents) when it came to their students. The campus foment of the 1960s, capped off by the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1971, was thought to have ended the era of in loco parentis and its distinctively paternalistic features, like curfews for women on campus, disciplinary action for perceived moral failures, single-sex dorms that barred members of the opposite sex from even visiting, and restrictions on free speech. Yet today’s campuses are slowly rebuilding themselves into even stricter parents than they were in the 1950s.

By adopting measures like restrictive speech codes, free speech zones, and mandatory “training” on how to speak to and relate with other students, colleges have long been creating an environment similar to that of living with an inflexible and officious parent. Trigger warnings now threaten to drag the protective impulse of parenting into the college curriculum itself. If we want colleges to train students to be rational, free-thinking, fully participating members of a democratic society, mandating trigger warnings is an excellent way to ensure that we fail.

May 22, 2014

Trigger warnings and the closing of the western mind

Filed under: Books, Liberty, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:49

Tiffany Jenkins says that the rising demand for trigger warnings are like a loaded gun pointed at the head of literature:

In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, the Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi recalls how, when living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, she secretly brought together seven female students in her living room every Thursday morning so they could read and discuss forbidden classic works of Western literature. These books were considered ‘anti-revolutionary’ and ‘morally harmful’ by the Iranian authorities. Nafisi and the girls put themselves at risk so they could enter the worlds created by writers that included Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Nafisi’s passion for literature and her defiance of the authorities is inspiring, as is the determination of the girls who attended her class, but Reading Lolita in Tehran is an upsetting read. Books – ideas – are powerful, of course, and deal with difficult and sometimes questionable ideas, but they are not so powerful that we should be prevented from studying them, and it makes me angry to think that those wonderful, if tragic and complicated, worlds of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, are not available to everyone in many parts of the world. All because those books are considered immoral, and because women, especially, are deemed too susceptible to negative influences.


One thing a novel never is is simple. That’s why we read them, because they are challenging and thoughtful. You don’t read The Great Gatsby or any other book to learn about whether it is good or bad to betray your husband, or long after a lost love, or make loads or money, or to hit your mistress, or commit suicide, you read to explore how complicated, and human, these desires, wishes and acts are. And there is no such thing as the ‘last word’ when it comes to a novel. The ongoing conversation between readers and writers shouldn’t be curtailed, or deemed too difficult a task for us. What we know or think is never complete or final.

As someone who has taught many students, I can say that most lecturers have faith in their students and know how to help students with issues navigate difficult material. What the students calling for trigger warnings fail to realise is that these are issues that will never be addressed by a warning sticker.

This is a generation of students, it would seem, that does not want university to be a place of free thought, of experimentation, and of reading the best that has been known and thought. This is a generation that sees knowledge as dangerous and themselves as incapable of dealing with it, who seem to want to erase from the world any written words that address complexity, difficulty, nastiness, or the depth of human feeling. These students don’t want to be disturbed, stretched or challenged, and nor do they want others to be. It is a generation that just wants to be sheltered from the world, from one another and even themselves. These are students who, if they are not careful, will find that members of their classes are forced to organise private reading groups in their own homes in order to experience a world of literature that is being denied to them.

December 30, 2013

QotD: Yes, but what is it really about?

Filed under: Books, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, “The Fifth Child,” which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course ‘The Fifth Child’ is about AIDS.”

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

The demand that stories must be “about” something is from Communist thinking and, further back, from religious thinking, with its desire for self-improvement books as simple-minded as the messages on samplers.

Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)

September 25, 2009

QotD: CanLit

Filed under: Books, Cancon, Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 17:26

Canadian literature (or CanLit, as some insist) has gradually become a genre of its own- one of books that are bleak, desperate, *meaningful*, and above all, dull.

Jesse Brown, “You and the Pirates”, Boing Boing, 2009-09-25

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