“Freedom is the dream you dream while putting thought in chains.” —Leopardi
On May 10 The Chronicle Review published an article by Andrew Kay called “Academe’s Extinction Event.” A thoughtful, charming, and funny writer, Kay reflects on the 2019 Modern Language Association meeting, which seems to him rather frivolous amid the collapse of literary study and the humanities generally. Says Kay:
Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love—or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. “Eye on the ball, Chet!” one can hear them saying. “Not on the cataclysm!”
Thus MLA 2019….
Cue four predictably middling women academics—Devin M. Garofalo, Anna Hinton, Kari Nixon, and Jessie Reeder—who decided to use Kay’s article as an occasion for punishing him for the crime of being a white man. In “The Humanities Without Nostalgia,” their response to Kay published in The Chronicle Review on May 17, Garofalo et al. claim Kay is nostalgic for the good old days when academe was a function of white male privilege. The irony of attributing (without contextual evidence) such a belief to Kay—a PhD who gave up on academe because he couldn’t find a career in it—while they themselves are all tenure-track professors was apparently lost on these bluestockings.
What is more, according to his critics, Kay is “damningly [damningly!] uninterested in women and scholars of color”—two groups whose rise in academe Kay allegedly blames for its decline. (Ah, if only he had argued that these groups and others have used ideas of personal identity to advance themselves while corrupting academic standards, but Kay is not the type of person to do that.) You might think it is bizarre to assume a scholar is obligated to be interested in “women and scholars of color” (why not also the elderly, or the disabled, or midgets, or albinos?), but having been to graduate school in English, I can tell you that such a moralistic non sequitur is par for the course in the deluded academy.
Garofalo et al. make other dubious and unserious claims, but I will spare you the details. In short, their minds consisting of trendy clichés, these academics wrote a piece characterized by wild misrepresentations of context, obvious logical contradictions, strange inferences, and gross non sequiturs. Had they more, or perhaps any, self-awareness, they would be embarrassed by this display. And if the editors of The Chronicle Review weren’t hacks themselves, they would have had the judgment to reject the article.
That “The Humanities Without Nostalgia” really is this bad has been demonstrated by Anastasia Berg in “Fanning the Flames While the Humanities Burn,” published in The Chronicle Review on May 20. In the article’s most important passage, Berg seizes on what Garofalo et al. are up to with her usual incisiveness:
Kay’s real sin…is not his unwitting bigotry…. [It] is that he fails to embrace his own sacrifice as well justified, fails to see his own loss as the “very necessary unsettling of white male dominance,” fails to welcome the “cleansing flame.” The problem is not what Kay says but that he dares to speak of his own predicament—that he dares to want publicly anything at all.
Here is the utterly pathological and malevolent perspective of Kay’s critics. Kay must not only be sacrificed; he had better keep quiet about it, because “to speak of his own predicament” is to affirm the very whiteness and maleness that are so dangerous to “women and scholars of color.” The irony is that not only do white men not get jobs today in academe just because they are white men; it is because they are white men that they don’t get such jobs, even as “women and scholars of color” are hired because of their identity.
Berg is right to use sacrifice as a metaphor. Striving for values often requires some concept of an enemy—some not-A against which A can be actualized and preserved—and for Garofalo et al., Kay is it. What they most resent, I suspect, is the quality of his prose. That Kay is a skillful writer is evident from his article that I’ve linked to above. This can also be seen from his essay “Pilgrim at Tinder Creek,” published in The Point (where Anastasia Berg is a very competent editor). This autobiographical work compares the hells of internet dating to the hells of trying to get a decent job in the contemporary academy. It is smart, funny, and poignant.
By contrast, Kay’s critics neither think nor write well, but are more of the usual boring academic followers. Here, for instance, is a description of Devin M. Garofalo’s “scholarship” from her faculty webpage at Florida Atlantic University:
Her current book project, ‘Interworlds: Nature, Scale, Form in the Long Nineteenth Century,’ explores how Romantic and Victorian poets and scientists imagined the category of “world” as making visible otherwise invisible and potentially radical blueprints of material and political relationality. She considers how nineteenth-century thinkers were acutely aware of the formal and scalar variety of material life: of how the human body might function, from the perspective of an insect, as an entire world, even as the category of “world” also comprises the luminous bodies glimmering in the night sky…. This plenum reconfigures conventional oppositions between subject and object, human and nonhuman, individual and collective, conveying experimental models for the organization of material and political life. Ultimately, ‘Interworlds’ shows how the category of “world” affords a lens for navigating the changing scales of space and time at stake in the nineteenth-century cosmopolitan imaginary. It also makes a broader conceptual move. Whereas recent theoretical debates about the global and the planetary often resist the category of “world” on political grounds, Garofalo reclaims its nineteenth-century complexity as an affordance for the environmental humanities.
Summarizing this pseudo-philosophical verbiage, let us say that Garofalo uses the works of “Romantic and Victorian poets and scientists” to make a case for left-wing politics and, specifically, for “the environmental humanities” (whatever that means—it’s hard to believe the subject could interest anyone who is not a stuffy pretender). But why use such intellectual figures to those ends? Well, because there’s no intellectual distinction in just telling people that they should “go green” and vote Democrat.
According to her profile at Academia.edu, Anna Hinton is “currently an African American Literature postdoctoral associate at Rutgers University.” Her “research interests are Disability Studies, African American Literature and Culture, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Motherhood Studies.” Her papers include “Making Do with What You Don’t Have: Disabled Black Motherhood in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents” and “‘And So I Bust Back’: Violence, Race, and Disability in Hip Hop.” In other words, Hinton, too, is identity-politics rabble, her voguish “scholarship,” like Garofalo’s, concerning subjects that are external to the study of literature qua literature.
At her faculty webpage at Whitworth University Kari Nixon writes:
My research explores the way that contagious disease uncovers surprising points of human contact and aversion. I focus largely on the ways that wide acceptance of germ theory in the 1870s and onward ushered in a new era of aversion from the—apparently contagious—global community, and catalyzed self-protective efforts at isolation. I concentrate primarily on authors who resisted this cultural zeitgeist and stubbornly insisted on human connection as inevitable and in fact necessary for a fulfilling world experience, even in the face of dangerous contagious disease. In pursuing these goals, which also consider the broader growth in faith in science as an omnipotent power in the late part of the century, I’ve also published on Scandinavian drama from the period, as well as modern-day zombie comics and other contagion narratives.
Like the others, Nixon is plainly not a literary scholar, though, like them, she presents herself as going against the grain in what is supposed to be an admirable fashion; that is, she works on authors who “resisted…[the] cultural zeitgeist and stubbornly insisted on human connection as inevitable and in fact necessary for a fulfilling world experience, even in the face of dangerous contagious disease.” Pass the pom-poms, good team member.
Jessie Reeder’s faculty webpage at Binghamton University reads:
Professor Reeder’s research focuses on nineteenth-century British literature and its engagement with the wider world, particularly imperial zones. Her current book project, ‘The Forms of Informal Empire: Britain, Latin America, and Nineteenth-Century Literature,’ explores the unique literary and social narratives that developed in response to Britain’s informal influence in post-independence Latin America. This book reads across genres, nations, and languages, putting British and Latin American writing of the nineteenth century into dialogue in a new way….
Like those common academic terms, “intersection” and “lens,” “dialogue” is a dead giveaway: Reeder is a cant-peddler, one of countless hollow academics who want to affect a stance of noble opposition, to “imperial zones” in her case.
Compare the approaches of these academic clones with the approach of my literary journal The Agonist:
For us, works of literature are essentially verbal constructions. Race, gender, sexual orientation—these things, in our view, are not aesthetic criteria, and therefore do not factor into what we publish, review, or publish criticism on.
It is because “works of literature are essentially verbal constructions” that literary critics historically have focused on how such works do what they do, and evaluated them accordingly. The how is far more important than the what, for it is the element of form that gives something aesthetic interest and affords aesthetic pleasure. Otherwise, why read a novel or poem rather than a newspaper or Das Kapital?
But close reading is not easy. It is difficult, for example, to show through textual analysis how great writers create distinct and rich characters that represent important things about human life, things that not every writer can make us see. Very few people can do that. And though, after a point, it becomes extremely difficult to say anything new about a major writer, academics remain committed to the silly pretense that they have to make “original contributions to scholarship.”
Hence why so many academics regard literature as nothing but a means for affirming their nonliterary values, prejudices, and resentments. As Kay observes, the professoriat has lost sight of what literature is for—owing, let us be clear, to people like his critics—and academic literary study therefore deserves to fade into irrelevance, just as it is doing. Most literature professors are like someone who, upon being introduced to a stranger, should immediately reduce his inexhaustible complexity to “environmentalism—good,” or “white man—bad.” Nor is there anything they despise more than the awareness of their own inferiority, as inevitably evidenced by those few people in the world who do write well, like Andrew Kay. So it happened that Garofalo et al. claimed the man’s lament for their dying profession is really about nostalgia for “the patriarchy.”
It was a dirty, defensive trick, an ignoble attempt to exercise power over someone who left them feeling intellectually defeated. For, unlike Kay, they cannot write interesting journalism and essays; and unlike James Wood, Christopher Ricks, Marjorie Perloff, and other strong contemporary critics, they cannot write about literature on its own terms, either. And so they work up an enemy in order to appear morally sophisticated, and hence worthy of distinction. It is not Kay who believes in white male supremacy. It is, amusingly, his moralistic critics. Their trite chatter about white male supremacy is a reflection of their own underlying anxieties and insecurities. They want to make somebody suffer for their wretched condition—for their awareness that white men, as a group, write better than they do—and here Kay is useful.