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
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?