LITERARY STUDIES IN THE AGE OF THE EMPIRE’S COLLAPSE
By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.,
Fellow, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University
Even as the global stock market bounces up and down every day, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average in Wall Street suffers unprecedented historic declines, it seems self-indulgent on our part to spend time on the topic: Why study literature? In fact, why read the classics? And here, let me stress that given my training limited to acquaintance with the Western canon, what they call the Judeao-Christian cultural heritage, I can only comment on the situation of the humanities in the global North, particularly in the United States, where I have spent over forty years teaching, writing, and researching in the field of English and American literature, with some excursions into literatures written in other languages. I would like to hear the Taiwanese “take” on the current crisis, given the fact that whether you like it or not, we are in the same lifeboat, especially because (as I see it), Taiwan occupies the in-between space between China and the United States due to the historical circumstances of the last half century.
It might be useful also to take into account the global trends review of the US National Intelligence Council (reported last Thursday, Nov. 20) that US dominance is ending, its power diminished in an increasingly multipolar world. The Council opines that the US will no longer be the unrivalled superpower, at best it will be “a first among equals” in a more fluid and balanced world. However, this balance, shadowed by the economic growth of China, India and Brazil, will be changed with the obsolescence of the “Western model of economic liberalism, democracy and secularism, with wealth under state control moving from East to West, to China and Russia in particular. With the US exiting from the global scene, will the writings of Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville, Hawthorn and Whitman also fade from the scene? Will art/literature following the way of politics and economics?
And, after post-9/11 and the precipitous breakdown of finance-capital worldwide—a trend still continuing, with most commentaries (even by staid conservative journals like the UK The Economist) suspecting that the bottom has not yet been reached—do we have time to discuss the value and usefulness of art? Perhaps this moment can serve as a therapeutic break, an escapist diversion, needed to refocus our dispersed thoughts. Mindful of the marginality of art and belle-lettres to a business culture, I suggest that we suspend this question of the relation between art/literature and the social system, fraught and contested as it is, until I have made some comments on the situation of literary study today in the United States.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War with the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, the discipline of literary studies in the United States entered a twilight zone. The celebrated heyday of post-structuralism, distinguished primarily by the vogue of Derridean deconstruction and Foucaultian discourse-analysis, reached a point of exhaustion after September 11, 2001. This spiritual fatigue was signaled earlier by forums on “the end of theory.” One symptom of this terminal stage may be Baudrillard’s controversial quip that the first Iraq War did not really occur. By this he means that, like Disneyland pretending to be imaginary so that Los Angeles and the rest of America can pretend to be real, the horrible events of the first Iraq War was highly mediated, without any discernible gap between surface and depth; and that it had become fictitious in order for the rest of the world to acquire an illusion of substance. In any case, everything is hyperreal. What the rubric of the “end of theory” indicates, in my view, is a climate of opinion in the US academy that a need for a transition is needed, a change from one stage of pedagogical and disciplinary fashion to another. We need to remind ourselves that in the capitalist system, the logic of capital accumulation entails the constant revolutionizing of the means of production to prevent the rate of profit from falling—that is, to prevent crisis. Within that logic, the politics and ideology of the system registers that basic change both directly and indirectly, with culture, habits of thought, feeling and social behavior changing at varying rates of speed and intensity. The inherent contradictions of the system requires changes also in the nature of the institutions that regulate and control the behavior of the classes subordinate to the rule of capital. In short, the function of the educational system changes with the change in the mode of production and the totality of the social formation.
In the United States, the capitalist world-view of a free-marked where individuals compete is founded on Enlightenment philosophy, particularly John Locke and Adam Smith. However, this view is colored by what is called “American Exceptionalism,” namely, the United States, unlike Europe, was born “without original sin,” without feudal class divisions, so that every citizen is free, equal and entitled to the enjoyment of property and the pursuit of success/material prosperity. This “common sense’ of American liberalism, American individualism, pervades the whole political, cultural and economic institutions and practices and elicits consent from the majority of citizens. When this consensus is questioned or suffers a loss of adherence, as in the Civil War, force determines the issue. In the twentieth century, the rise of the US Empire after the victory in the Spanish-American War allowed the country to experience the benefits of “Manifest Destiny” with the conquest of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba and, later, the annexation of Hawaii. Before this, the defeat of Mexico and the acquisition of large territories of New Spain, followed by the subjugation and dispossession of the Native Americans, allowed the dominant elite to engage in a global search for new markets and sources of raw materials for its rapidly innovative industries and trade. Capitalist modernization of the United States was interrupted by the Depression of the thirties, a systemic breakdown that was ultimately remedied by the Second World War and the political/economic ascendancy of the United States during the Cold War up to the end of the century.
What I wanted to convey in this review of the historical background of the United States is the way in which the educational institutions, particularly the university, undergoes revision and transformation following the vicissitudes of the political and economic order. Bourgeois hegemony was shaken during the Depression since the system could not deliver, allowing a critique of private enterprise by progressive forces also operating within the Enlightenment framework, that is, thinkers and artists who aligned themselves with the exploited workers, minorities, and other marginalized, inferiorized groups. Marxist critical theory for the first time asserted its presence in the public sphere (through such public intellectuals as Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, and others). But in the aftermath of World War II and the wholesale repression of the left, and “fellow-travellers” such as the Hollywood Ten and numerous academics, the field of literary study returned to a version of philology that was narrower than that previously practiced by the American transcendentalists in the nineteenth-century, or by the experimental if elite and reactionary cosmopolitanism of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and their generation in the twenties and thirties.
How do we explain this turn of events? The founding of the New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren and its inordinate influence in the discipline of literary and cultural criticism from the forties to the sixties may be explained by, first, the violent suppression and silencing of Marxist and leftist modes of thought in art, literature and the mass media; second, the need to compromise with the Southern Agrarian reaction to reconstitute a frayed and precarious hegemony since the Southern political system still flourished on the basis of segregation and Jim Crow laws; and, third, the need to service the educational needs of a new generation, primarily veterans, without any classical-oriented preparation in the humanities, thus the formalistic orientation and the idealist metaphysics of individual consciousness and naturally derived resources. This may be a schematic and somewhat abbreviated description of a more complex flow of events, but what I want to lead on to is why the “end of theory” follows this itinerary of the mutation of mentalities, theoretical schemes, styles of writing and reading, almost like the passage of commercial fashion.
Now the explosion of the sixties in the Civil Rights struggles, youth revolt, protest against the Vietnam War, and so on, led to the well-known interrogation of the existing academic “common sense” and the revision of the canon. New authors entered the scene, as well as reviewers, publicists, critics and teachers of the new curricular texts. Consequently, at the time the famous 1966 international symposium on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” at The Johns Hopkins University (participants included Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Paul de Man, Lucien Goldman, Jean Hypolite, Roman Jakobson, Rene Girard, among others), the field was open for the influx and importation of critical and philosophical trends from Europe, primarily from the French structuralists and poststructuralists. Ludic theory gained its prominence during the neoconservative regimes of Reagan and George Herbert Bush, eventually losing breath and vigor in the nineties when the “cultural logic” of the hypertext, hyperreality, undecidable and indeterminate signifiers all sliding or floating all over the place could not help explain the recessions following Wall Street carnage in 1987 or the more serious economic downturn in 2000-2001. In short, critical theory became a kind of decadent luxury, not just removed from what’s happening but almost an ironic if parodic comment on the turbulence in the life of most working people. By this time, we have entered the era of globalization and the wild kaleidoscopic gyrations of finance capital initiated by September 11, 2001 and the “global war on terrorism” now raging in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, what follows theory as we know it?
One symptom of the convulsive life of finance capital in the Reagan-Bush era is the free-play of tastes and fashions, almost a parodic mirror-image of the fabled “free marketplace of ideas.” No doubt, this parallels Derrida’s “free play” of the signifier in discourse, together with Barthe’s “the dead of the author” and Foucault’s problematic constitution of knowledge/power as “author.” Even Mikhail Bakhtin had to be purged of his Marxist residues in order to be harnessed for Establishment instrumentalities. After canon revision, the introduction of Ethnic Studies, Women Studies, and so on, led to the gradual institutionalization of the reforms initiated in the sixties and the official imprimatur to Establishment multiculturalism as the chief ideology of globalization. Finance capital’s hegemony was thus constructed on the basis of “deconstruction” and the saliency of structure, discourse, system, though somewhat differentiated or made dialectical, as well as the newly defined importance of context, process, relationships.