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Monday, 26 February 2007


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Luther Blissett

Scott, I don't think a conservative literary critic would have a problem acknowledging that Caribbean novels could have "universal genius." Instead, they'd take issue with the leveling of distinction between Shakespeare and Brodber: each might be universal, but Shakespeare's still better than Brodber. It's not so much about the race or national background of the artist as the time-tested "enduring human value" of the art.

For me, the more interesting question is what conservative literary studies would look like (a) regardless of canon debates and (b) beyond critiques of theory and left-wing literary studies. Erin O'Connor, for example, is long on critique but short on any actual contribution to practical criticism or theory.

I mean, it's not like you couldn't have a capitalist literary criticism, right? If Jameson's right that, at some level, postmodern art is art that reflects the world of late capitalism, then a capitalist critic could come along and say that all that verbal energy, all that formal play, all that amazing generic hybridity, of the best postmodern art is a testament to the creative energy of a free global market.

But would a conservative literary critic have to take issue from the start with any attempt to think about the relationship between economics and culture? I don't think so. A Fukuyama-based theory of modern literature would be possible. Or a Hayek-ian theory. The question is this: would any research institution in America *allow* a student to write a Fukuyama-driven history of contemporary world fiction? And would that person get any job interviews?

Thomas Elrod

In this respect, I think the multiculturalist have cornered the cultural traditionalists

Yeah, I think you're right about that. Traditionalist canon discussion has a hall-of-mirrors quality about it (X is great because he's universal; he's universal because he's great) that is frustrating when one is trying to build an argument based on non-relative truths.

I still think that if such a conservative criticism were to exist, it would have to admit that "Shakespeare and Dickens are in, so are Brodber and the rest" and then try to say something conservative about Jane and Louisa Will Come Home Soon. We simply don't live a world that can (or should) deny the possibility of a Jamaican writer being as good as Shakespeare or Dickens. Of course, most modern conservative (and frankly, liberal) political discourse these days still manage to write off large regions of the world as primitive and other (eg. Iraq, Darfur, etc. etc.), so maybe I'm being too optimistic in the ability of people to give writers like Brodber a chance.

Thomas Elrod

Of course I didn't read Luther's comment before posting my own. D'oh.

On his first point: I don't think a conservative literary critic would have a problem acknowledging that Caribbean novels could have "universal genius." Instead, they'd take issue with the leveling of distinction between Shakespeare and Brodber: each might be universal, but Shakespeare's still better than Brodber.

Yeah, ditto.

Rich Puchalsky

I don't quite understand this post, Scott. Harold Bloom seems to have made some versions of the arguments that you say are classically conservative; for instance, I think that I've seen him make one about Shakespeare being the primary multicultural author because he's been used in all cultures. Bloom rejects multiculturalism as part of the "school of resentment". Once again, I don't see why Bloom isn't characterized as conservative; because he's not a bigoted know-nothing? I diss conservatives all the time, but that seems a little harsh.

I think that the smaller an intellectual movement is, the more idiosyncratic it looks. If there were lots of conservative literary studies people, there would probably be a contingent of Bloom-ites, and he wouldn't look so individual. But because there aren't (and for why, see Berube's What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts), Bloom looks like a lone eccentric. But given that a literary theorist must be willing to theorize -- and without any theory-to-Theory confusion -- you can't disqualify him as conservative merely for being theoretical. I think that Bloom seems to have attempted the job of making an intellectual justification for a canon, disdain for multiculturality, and so on. Since it's an attempt at a real justification, of course it's not compatible with simple bigotry -- but that doesn't necessarily make it less conservative.

BTW, here's Bloom's list of possible canonical works from the West Indies (taken from a Web site that reproduces his lists from The Western Canon:

L.R. James The Black Jacobins. The Future in the Present.
V.S. Naipaul A Bend in the River. A House for Mr. Biswas.
Derek Walcott Collected Poems.
Wilson Harris The Guyana Quartet.
Michael Thelwell The Harder They Come.
Aime Cesaire Collected Poetry.


The question is this: would any research institution in America *allow* a student to write a Fukuyama-driven history of contemporary world fiction? And would that person get any job interviews?

Actually, Luther, I know of one case. Luke Menand, now at Harvard, once wrote on comment on a paper of someone I know that went something like "You grant cultural agency to text X. But, if you'd read your Fukuyama, you'd know that social change Y was actually an effect of a change in the market...." Something along those lines.

J.S. Nelson

I have a habit of trying to pursue what line of thought I can forsee as being most injurious to my own arguments. So I've actually spent some time trying to come up with conservative arguments of this sort.
For the simplest, all we really need is a fuzzy idea of influence as in "a power to affect persons or events especially power based on prestige". What texts have already been influential? Shakespeare, more than Brodber. So we teach a kind of "greatest hits" of "enduring human value" as Luther said earlier. The canon is thus amorphous and changing but has a sort of feedback loop. We don't have a huge amount of control over it, as in the unlikely event that Dan Brown's work proves to be a lasting source of intellectual fruit, it ends up in the canon. We might not want to study him now but we have to acknowledge that in a hundred years or so, when we're all dead and gone, if everybody wants to teach Dan Brown, he's in. The process of inclusion is based on the idea that though we should be teaching stuff that's pretty clearly in the canon, there is maybe some stuff that hasn't made it in which is worth talking about. If I encounter a text which is beautiful and universal to me, I can write about it and maybe some people will take notice. It either dies out or becomes popular and long lasting (I wonder if literary popularity has a kind of inverse square law thing like species extinction, re: Stuart Kauffman's Investigations.) So the canon isn't defined in terms of what is necessarily beautiful or universal, those things are just a relatively good way to get into it. We actually get a weird sort of subjective democratic picture of the canon, which, though it has some conservative values built right in (respect for tradition, authority), is not obviously bad at first glance.
The trick here is that there are no built in structural features to combat ethnocentrism or racism, and with an emphasis placed on tradition, we're going to inherit a canon which is not already inclusive of much work from other cultures. Now there can be a variety of pseudomulticultural approaches that could be characterized as conservative.
One is to say "Yes of course we'd like to include more multicultural perspectives, but we think it should be done naturally as they prove themselves, not artificially by forcing them in." This is the kind of argument we see with stuff like affirmative action too. The problem, from a liberal point of view, is that the system is in certain ways very self-reinforcing and unless we give certain works treatment which is preferential in some ways, they're going to be at a disadvantage.
Another sort of postmodern view is essentially "Yes we think that other cultures are great and that they should have their own literature, but since our values are determined by a cultural tradition as you have so kindly pointed out, we'll study the literature from our tradition and anyone who finds Jamaican literature especially pertinate (IE other Jamaicans) can study that." It amounts to a kind of separate but equal stance which is very slippery because it actually takes some rather liberal points to heart. The argument against it is something like "Well, we're liberals and we don't like ethnocentrism because we think it makes you more likely to enslave or bomb them so cut it out" which is countered by a conservative "we would never do such a thing, we're just talking about books and we've very nice actually."
Alternatively, one could even agree that structural features need to be built into the canon to guard against ethnocentrism and racism, "provided that they are more in line with our moderate to conservative view of what culture, race and racism is and are not the insane polemics of those postcolonial types." And this really brings it down to anthropological matters.

Luther Blissett

Rich, I think it's interesting that, of the Caribbean writers who make Bloom's list, Naipaul, Harris, and Walcott didn't spend significant time in the Caribbean beyond their early adulthood. (Actually, Harris was 40 when he emigrated to England, but he didn't write the first volume of the Guyana Quartet, his first fiction, until he was in England. His first career was working as a government surveyor in Guyana.)

Bloom's failure to include Kamau Brathwaite is telling, for Brathwaite (am I spelling that right?) has stayed much closer to the islands throughout his career. And Brathwaite is a far more interesting poet than Walcott.

J.S. Nelson's version of the conservative canon argument is right on. It's not that minorities or women aren't properly universal or artistic, but rather that we have a duty to study and teach what has been most influential. We see this argument recapitulated by ED Hirsch for K-8 curricula. I've read conservative critics complain that Marlowe was being taught alongside Shakespeare -- the idea being that it's a waste of syllabus space to include a lesser playwright, even a dead white male one.

Rich Puchalsky

The problem with J.S. Nelson's argument is that I don't know if it really is the strongest conservative one. Bloom seems to favor an idea of "canonical strangeness" which doesn't really come down to influence as described above. Rather it seems to be an idea of influence as a kind of disturbance, based on aesthetic criteria. I would guess that this type of argument would say that Dan Brown could never be in the canon because his work is not just aesthetically shoddy, it's also derivative.

That model would seem to predispose you to look for twisted echoes -- works that are close enough to previous works so that you have some kind of existing aesthetic criteria for them, yet different enough to bring something new. That would naturally seem to make it somewhat difficult for writers from other traditions to edge into the Western canon -- they have to be seen as neither imitators nor as aesthetically unevaluable by the standards that their work would tend to modify.

J.S. Nelson

Granted, I know very little about Bloom, but I don't think my model discourages "canonical strangeness". I felt earlier that "influence" might be the wrong word, but the simplest one to use in the situation, so I called it "fuzzy" so I wouldn't have to elaborate. "Productive" is one that I prefer, for my own reasons. Basically, the works that'd be included are just those strange and unique ones. They're productive in the sense that they generate a lot more writing, whether it's because they're different in a way that inspires other writers (like they open up new literary conventions) or they're just interesting enough to inspire a lot of literary analysis. So Bloom's "canonical strangeness", if I understand it, could definitely play a part, and derivative works probably wouldn't be interesting enough to generate any buzz.

Scott Eric Kaufman


That model would seem to predispose you to look for twisted echoes

This is what Bloom sees as the end result of the anxiety of influence -- but it's also implicit in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," in which the fit of any later work depends on how it alters the canon as currently constructed. It's a retroactive twisting of echoes, but the effect's the same.

J.S. Nelson:

I think you've accurately described one element of the conservative response, but Luther's follow-up points to the problem with it: there's an implicit value judgment -- Shakespeare but not Marlowe -- which never needs justifying so long as we rely upon tradition. The problem with that as a mode of literary criticism is, well, that it's not all that critical; it leaves nothing for the critic to do, because there's no critical faculty involved in recognizing historical inertia. Not that this is a problem with your account, mind you. When you say "one could even agree that structural features need to be built into the canon to guard against ethnocentrism and racism," I can only agree, but obliquely, by turning their argument back against them and saying that those safeguards are "merely" the literary qualities of the literary text. No more, no less. A conservative defense predicated not on tradition but quality would, of necessity, include works which are inherently troublesome to the mindset of the political conservative. This is why I increasingly think we should argue for canonical value on the basis of literary quality -- especially if we tie it to some idea of the literary as contested moments, artfully constructed. Sure it's circular, but it allows in all the old standards and for the inclusion of new ones.

I sound like I'm laying a trap, don't I?

Timothy Burke

I'm going to try and riff off this great post soon. It has reminded me of one of the most jaw-dropping moments of my entire blogging career. When I asked, similarly, what does a "conservative humanities" look like as a programmatic, positively-described program of inquiry and teaching, I wasn't surprised at some of the silences but it was the few answers that were eye-opening, none more so than Mark Bauerlein popping into my comments section to argue that a "conservative humanities" would need to be completely firewalled off institutionally from existing humanities, especially the taint of historicist "cultural studies", and need extensive underwriting by a college administration (e.g., that it couldn't be subject to 'market tests' of student interest). The model, from what I could see, was St. John's style Great Books or some of what Bauerlein has written about military academies. E.g., it's all about the canon, but expressly about the canon as tablets handed down by Moses: the entire project, as I understood Bauerlein's sketch, would never provision an account of why the canon is the canon that it is. The canon would be a thing which preceded the intellectual project and was its axiom.

Now what this leaves the conservative humanist to actually say about the canon, I'm not clear--though Bauerlein seemed to me to suggest a kind of nationalist-didactic project that disseminates a class of constrained readings, where this is about creating a common literary and philosophical culture which then serves to reinforce a threatened "national soul" in a time of crisis and dissolution.

There are a lot of things to criticize about such a vision, but number one on my list is: if that's a conservative humanities, then Bauerlein (and others subscribing to some version of this ideal) have some cheek for bitching about the failure of existing academic departments and projects to include conservatism. That's not a proposal for a conservative humanities that is one methodological and intellectual option that competes with and is in debate with some other humanistic inquiry. It's an apartheid: the non-conservatives are remanded to being intellectual miscegenators, inclusive of all; the conservatives go off into their Fortress of Solitude, unsullied and pure.

Rich Puchalsky

But Timothy, that's the mirror image of what "left" academia wants. I know that some people think that talking about right postmodernism is overdone, but look at the comment thread here and you'll see the same exact thing, complete with suggestions that academia should preserve incommensurable discourses because they represent different kinds of knowledge. Under that system of belief, it really is unfair to leave out Bauerlein's project.

That's why I think that Bloom should be treated as a "conservative"; he's a conservative within the bounds of the Enlightment or humanistic conception of the academy, which means that he accepts the necessity of figuring out a communicable reason why the canon is the canon. The people who want inclusion because they have a discourse whose imcommensurability is the greatest recommendation for why it needs to be subsidized are the radical right, and they have taken the cue that reasons are meaningless, all that matters is power. Unfortunately, unlike their counterparts on the left, some of them do have actual power.

Luther Blissett

Rich, there are many reasons why I don't think Bloom is a model for a "conservative literary studies" program (or even one component of such a program).

First off, Bloom's idea of an anxiety of influence is based on a ton of theory rejected by nearly every conservative intellectual. Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida, De Man, Jakobson, Barthes, and others inform *The Anxiety of Influence* and *A Map of Misprision*. Let's remember that what Bloom is proposing in this early work is a Family Romance of writers. It's immune from the scientific critique that Scott levels at Freudian or Lacanian theory, insofar as Bloom sees Freud's theories as themselves "strong misprisions" of literary sources like Shakespeare and Goethe. Bloom sees his own project as an attempt at the same sort of strong misreading of Freud and a certain Judaic strain of deconstruction.

Second, in Bloom's critique of the "school of resentment," he'd be forced to include conservative critics of the Bauerline or E. D. Hirsch sort, who want literature to be taught as part of a shared national or Western culture. Bloom is closer to Allan Bloom. You could describe them as conservative only by limiting conservative to what it meant in Henry James's day -- a powerful critique of mass culture, capitalism, nationalism, ethnicism, militarism, etc. So Harold Bloom is an 1890s conservative, which has more in common with Adorno than with neo-conservatism or Christian conservatism today. (Ross Posnock has some interesting work on Henry James as a proto-Frankfurt culture critic, which a book like *The American Scene* certain supports.)

Bloom has more in common with a sort of aesthetic decadence a la Wilde and Pater than with anything conservatives are into these days. He is directly against moral criticism, whether of the conservative Leavis variety, or the liberal-nationalistic ED Hirsch variety or the leftwing Foucauldian variety. Even his theory of canonicity is all about radical *revisions* of the canon and not about careful conservation of or worship at the altar of the past.

It's no wonder that Bloom-ian work in the hands of Camile Paglia becomes a campy aestheticism, a praise of operatic, hyper-emotional queer culture. (And wasn't Allan Bloom gay, or am I making that up?)

Rich Puchalsky

Luther, I understand all your points (I think), but I'm attempting a sort of polemical declaration that Bloom is the real conservative, no matter what people who say they are conservatives think. People like Freud, Nietzsche, Derrida are part of literary studies at this point, and a conservative viewpoint has to deal with them. Only the radical right gets to try to rewrite history.

At some point, you have to do what Timothy Burke does above, and say "Look, you want a conservative literary studies program? Well, you don't get one, because you can't justify it in the terms of academia. If you do really want one, Bloom seems to be the best place to start."

(Allan Bloom was gay, as far as I know, but he never seemed as serious a literary theorist as Harold Bloom. He was also a Straussian, and Straussians are automatically nonserious because they have a well-developed distinction between what they tell the hoi polloi and what they really think, which ideally is never shared with critics.)


Maybe because I can remember attending lectures as an undergraduate where superannuated profs denounced Derrida, Barthes, et. al., I always took "conservative literary criticism" to mean criticism of an antitheoretical bent, meant to indoctrinate students in vaguely humanistic verities or thinly disguised religious homilies. (Hence, reading T.S. Eliot in high school AP courses.) It wanted students to appreciate the aesthetic niceties of this poem or that and by and large ignore the sociopolitical background when it couldn't be fitted to serve a nationalistic pedogogical program. In fact, any gesture toward aesthetics within the context of teaching literature seems to me a conservative move. Still, there seems a niche available for the scholar willing to interpret literary texts through the work of those who could constitute a conservative answer to left-leaning theory: Hayek, Fukuyama, Rieff, Leo Strauss, etc. Though I can't imagine what this could yield: a defense of elitism? a celebration of classical liberal ideas of unfettered markets and rational choice models of humanity? a championing of semi-religious communitarianism? an equation of literary tropes with conventions and traditions that must be preserved in the face of decadence (a la Matthew Arnold)?

J.S. Nelson

SEK, in some ways I do think it sounds like you are laying a trap. We (by which I mean you and my model) both arrive at a canon based on literary quality; it’s just that I rely on another aspect of conservative thought to get there. First, in my model I'm using the canon in a particular way, which is that it is essentially raw syllabus material. The inner core of it is basically a list of things that we know are susceptible to fruitful interpretation, which we can always come back to for teaching purposes. So it's a reliable starters kit. Also, for non-teaching purposes, we can always use it to illustrate general points (because everybody knows it) and provided that a work remains productive after generations of mining, we can do fresh interpretations of works of it. The trick is that except in the most conservative views, we know that the canon is always changing, and so once you take your training wheels off, you can always look outside of it for something fresh. We need this freedom because if we define the canon as it stands as literally everything of literary value, history makes us look like idiots.
Identifying historical momentum is a kind of heuristic that can tell you what's going to make for a good class, or where you might start looking for something that can be fruitfully interpreted, but once you've found it, your work hasn't even really begun. I don't see where criticism gets left behind. We don't have to make that value judgment implicit, we can ask "why have we written about Shakespeare and not Marlowe, what is so good about him?" or any number of other things. We can still use texts to make points about literature, politics, values, etc, and we can do it all within a conservative framework if we want to.

Provided that we're critics, even conservative ones, we're going to want to remain somewhat critical of everything, including the canon. But if we take "productivity" as a relatively accurate indicator of value (beauty, universality) if not a value in and of itself, and we take the canon to be composed of works which have thus far proved their productivity, then we can view the canon as empirically, almost tautologically valuable. Within conservative thought, we find situations like this all the time, where tradition is taken as an accurate indicator of quality if the two are not simply equated. Within this perspective it only makes sense to distinguish between the two if you're dissenting against the reception of a work ("not only is X poppycock, but nothing ever written about it is actually real criticism.") It does make sense to distinguish between a canon that's constructed in this bottom up way and one that's constructed in a more authoritarian way but that essentially amounts to limiting the tradition that's under consideration ("only conservatives have produced real criticism.") There's probably more to say about that but I've taken up enough space on this point for the moment. I actually think this isn’t just a good model for thought, I think it’s an extensible and plausible (granted, simplified) description of how “the canon” works in real life, and why we tend to have some problems with it.
Now, as far as whether the canon needs structural features to protect it from ethnocentrism and racism, I believe this is true, and that structural features are coming into place. These structural features are essentially liberals, who purposefully seek out "works which are inherently troublesome to the mindset of the political conservative". That a conservative canon would necessarily have to include these works, I find doubtful. On the closed minded end, one could just insist that the works which tend to be troublesome are in fact rubbish. Really though, all you need in practice is to acknowledge that there are plenty of works that are worth studying that haven't made it into the canon. In theory, yes of course we should seek out what is troublesome and upsets our own viewpoint, but in practice we use literary texts to make the points we wanted to make. Conservatives can find plenty of work of literary value to concentrate on which isn't troublesome to them, unless you define literary value to be "that which is troublesome to conservatives" which is an awfully liberal definition. I don't know precisely what you mean by "contested moments" but I'm relatively sure a conservative could reasonably contest that definition as politicized. At this point this spirals into questions of whether literary value has a universal definition and even out of literature and into the differences between conservative and liberal values.

And yes, when asking a question like "what does a conservative literary studies look like?" we have to first figure out which conservatives we're talking about. If we look pretty far to the right, the canon starts looking pretty, well, canonical, and we can see some pretty well established threads of literary studies here and here.
Bloom may turn out to be a good model for conservative literary studies but I don't think he's the only one, as conservatism is actually pretty varied.
There are some aspects of conservative thought that I respect and think are genuinely challenging to liberal ideas, and I keep wanting to conceive of a literary studies based around these ideas, but I have to remind myself that a truly conservative literary studies might drag the rest of conservatism in with it, and we'd get all the batshit insane stuff that is pretty antithetical to serious scholarship. Maybe that's not an argument against the possibility though, as the conservatives would be the first to point out that if we looked, we could find some pretty insane stuff that's antithetical to serious scholarship already well ingrained in our English departments.


I keep coming back to an ancillary idea much simpler than the robust ones above, which is that the pop-conservative notion of the canon cuts everything off after about the end of World War II. Not that it seems especially inclusive prior to that, but I am trying to think of any post-WWII writers *at all* who might be candidates for inclusion in a U.S. conservative canon. (One name that occurs to me is Solzhenitsyn; one theme that occurs to me is the Holocaust, although I don't know what specific books would make the list -- Night? The Periodic Table? Maus?) And you could quibble about the specific accuracy of this idea, which has no precision at all -- but the general idea that WWII was a turning point in the U.S. for conservative attitudes towards culture: what do you make of it? Even a good account of why I'm totally wrong here would interest me.

Adam Stephanides

Which articles of Kline, specifically, are you thinking of? I read all his reports from this year's MLA, and in none of them did he make anything like the sort of arguments you have him hypothetically making. In fact, it's hard to find any argument in most of his reports; I suspect you're attributing to Kline a lot more theoretical sophistication than he actually possesses. Also, his main interest seems to be the teaching of composition, and when he does talk about literary criticism, he's a lot more upset about "leftist" interpretations of canonical writers than the teaching of non-canonical writers.

(In one post, he does seem to decry teaching The Joy Luck Club in composition classes, apparently because he thinks it doesn't contain "literate writing." Or maybe not, since he lumps it in with The Great Gatsby.)

Moving away from Kline, would liberal or leftist critics (the most doctrinaire ones aside) be able to give justifications for why some works should be taught and not others that are any less subjective than "universality"?

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