The Meat is Halfway Down, or: The Weak Defense, Defended Weakly

Topic: the place of literary studies in the contemporary university.

Starting point: the old argument--the one offered by Matthew Arnold, Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, Harold Bloom, and others--doesn't work anymore.

My friend writes,
In the contemporary American university, literary studies could easily be considered the canary in the coal mine of humanities education. Among the last of the trappings of traditional liberal education (i.e. lessons in the Classic languages, refinement through philosophy, and exclusion of women), literature has long been where the vestiges of liberal thinking (cultural, not political) held ground. But we’ve know for some time that the bird is gasping for air under the pressure of corporate administrations and vocational curricula that demand its relevance beyond the crumbling walls of the ivory tower. In other words, rather than being a vestige, literature seems increasingly vestigial.
And assume that when she says "literature" in that last sentence, she means "literary study in the academy."

My dialogue partner suggests two rhetorical paths for defending literature: the strong defense and the weak defense. The strong defense, she implies, will answer for literature's use-value and necessity in the context of the increasingly corporate and vocational university system. The weak defense (and I think it's my role to defend this path) involves defending literature without making appeals to use-value or necessity within a corporate/business/industrial setting. In short, the weak defense appeals to a latent/vestigial/imaginary conscience for subsidization.

My knee-jerk defense on Facebook, where the dialogue started, was to compare literary studies to monastic life, and to a kind of spiritual pursuit. But my friend pointed out (justifiably) that a religion unconnected to the world is not, from the perspective of the world, worth funding. So that's about where we were...


For a moment, let's make this a question of (generic) rhetorical theory: when does the weak defense ever work? When is it wise to appeal to conscience rather than pragmatics? The only time I can imagine relying on the weak argument is when you believe that your audience has already made up its mind. Example: a mob is angry at me and I am brought before it to testify, and I believe that I am less likely to be deemed guilty if I keep silent than I am if I speak. That is: I use the weak argument when I believe the strong argument is worse than no argument at all.

Ironically, this is a difficult point to make in theoretical terms. In narrative terms, it's quite an easy phenomenon to observe:
They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you authority to do this?" Jesus replied, "I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men'...." (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
Part of me regrets the source of this narrative -- part of me revels in the irksomeness of it. In any case, isn't this the question: "by what authority?" Why does our hero (okay, sorry--that's too playful) Jesus refuse to answer the question with a strong defense?

The answer, as I understand it, is that constructing a strong defense would have been an implicit recognition of the authority of the temple courts and chief priests. Instead, by refusing to engage the argument, Jesus forces the temple courts and the chief priests to understand that their authority is based solely on power. Simultaneously, he identifies an alternative source of authority (though he won't go so far as to name it): the authority of John's baptisms.

Two points: 1) literary studies assumes that authority rests with the Demos, and literary studies (at least some faction of it) will continue making the weak argument until it is crucified by the Demos. The discomfort opponents experience in reaction to literary studies choosing this path--the pleading to hear a strong defense--sounds to me like the old "C'mon, hit me. I don't hit no man first" argument. 2) I hope it's at least intriguing that my argument relies fundamentally on narrative and narrative analysis. If there is an authentic strong defense, it will be a performance, not an argument, on literature's terms (that is, it will be a narrative).

So in the end the weak defense stands there, already beaten, unwillinng to participate in its own execution:
And one more last ditch weak defense: what is the strong defense for the contemporary university's insistence on maintaining beautiful hedging and neatly mowed lawns, flower gardens and bicycle paths? By what authority are you doing these things?


EnthyAlias said...

First, you skew the definitions of the Weak and Strong defense, as Lanham, Santos, and I are using the terms. The Weak Defense says that only good people produce good discourse and sidesteps the issue of defining what makes people or discourse “good.” The value judgment remains in isolation from the contexts that define ethical conduct, postponing the real issue. Thus a Weak Defense doesn’t remain silent, as you suggest, but prejudges X (a speech, a novel, an action etc.) as good/bad without consideration of its impact or consequence. To answer “by whose authority?” the authority here is assumed preemptively – I suppose much like the faithful presume the existence God. Such a defense is Weak not because it won’t defend itself (against the mob, the heretics) but because it denies the question of relevance altogether by invoking something self-contained and thus not accountable to the larger world.

A Strong Defense, in contrast, contextualizes both the value and truth of X within the “social dramas” that are man-made. This would be the sophistic, social constructionist argument of Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” Rhetoric or literature or any other X we fill in that is a human creation cannot be defended by extra-human standards. (And even religion, and thus God, are filtered through the human mind.) The Strong Defense acknowledges these limits and thus invokes arguments that demand accountability to the world human – not the divine or merely aesthetic, as you touch in with your parting question about hedges.

More importantly, taking up the Strong Defense does not privilege pragmatism over conscience, because it (NOT the Weak Defense) emphasizes the ethical implications and relevance of X beyond the investments of its producers/authors. You attribute a false dichotomy to these terms and thus how I use them – and that’s because you have already pre-judged the value of each term. But why do you consider practical accountability and relevance – i.e. placing literature in the context of a social human existence – something that denies conscience? Conscience is formed in relation to others, not in isolation as an a priori truth. Thus to act on one’s conscience means engaging the conversations taking place in the world around us, not in always already assuming that we have the right answer. The woman who's report from NCTE started this debate does the latter and I find this a Weak Defense of literary studies.

Oh, and who/what is the Demos if not also measured by humanity? My parting shot ...

Casey said...

I see I've misunderstood your terms -- take my defense about the hedges, then: is that a Strong Defense? I suppose I'm hoping that there will be an admission from those with money & power that campus benefits from beautiful things: do hedges need any stronger defense than that?

It sounds like you're taking it one step further than necessary -- essentially arguing that flowers are beautiful because human communities deem them to be beautiful, but not because they're intrinsically beautiful. Obviously, I can agree to that.

So if my argument is: universities should maintain literary studies because enough people find that beautiful (like flowers), what kind of a defense is that?

I genuinely am out of my comfort zone with the terminology here, though I'm happy to try to engage the debate in your terms, which is why I turned (or tried to) to generic rhetorical theory in making my appeal.

Also, it seems to me that conscience is formed both in relation to others and in relation to an a priori. But I suppose this is not a point worth arguing now.

I want to say one more thing about your first point: you insist that the Weak Defense sidesteps the issue of defining what makes people or discourse "good." I don't know anymore whether I'm making the Weak Defense or not, but I will say with conviction that I think there is absolute a time for that (you probably won't disagree here--and will say something about kairos?). In my judgment, one of the great lessons of literary narrative can be the demand that a reader suspend her judgment. It is not enough for the reader who deems Hester Prynne "bad" for sleeping with Dimmesdale to explain her criteria and justify her judgment: the fact is, the reader who cannot delay judgment on Hester is a "bad reader."

Which takes me, finally, to LOST: it may well be that literature is no longer as useful as something like our favorite TV drama -- nevertheless, the defense is the same for the two genres. I'm very willing to listen to an argument about how LOST proves the point that (say) ethics happens in- and across-time than The Scarlet Letter in 2009. But it seems disingenuous to me to argue that there is a fundamental difference in the "purpose" or use of the two types of narrative.


After all that, I'm really very convinced by what you say -- but I'm not sure you're doing justice to literary study when you say that it takes place outside of the "social dramas" that are man-made. Purdue's own Don Platt just published an anti-war poem in the most recent volume of the Iowa Review... that's as engaged as it gets, and it ought to be understood as an interesting rhetorical choice. From my perspective (and from Wayne Booth's, or whatever) literature and rhetoric are currently like shy sixth graders who've felt the stirring in their loins but don't have the courage to act on it yet. The faux antagonism between the two sects evident in graduate school seems to me now like a much exaggerated immature love-spat. But that's just from my perspective... feel free to give us folks the cold shoulder. It wouldn't be the first time I had a crush on somebody who wouldn't acknowledge my existence.

Monica said...

Casey, you're my hero.

On a side note: this was all covered (somewhat) in the last MLA newsletter, where some professor wrote an article about how when it comes to approaching the dean for funding, scientists bring data and those from the humanities bring a box of tissues. In other words, if the value of what we do is measure in monetary funds, we need to find a way to represent it quantitatively.

Money rules the world.