Bite Size Criticism

“International scholarship on Coetzee, with some exceptions, involves walking one step behind the novelist, collecting the allusions he scatters to Foucault or Levinas or Derrida and arranging them reverently in his honour, which is also to the honour of pure literature.

Imran Coovadia, 2012, Transformations: Essays.

What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities’:

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out’; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

Political Concepts

Via geographical imaginations, here is a link to an online journal, Political Concepts, “a multidisciplinary, web-based journal that seeks to be a forum for engaged scholarship. Each lexical entry will focus on a single concept with the express intention of resituating it in the field of political discourse by addressing what has remained unquestioned or unthought in that concept”. Some interesting family resemblances, in fact, between this project and the Keywords Project , although also perhaps some distinguishing features too – that emphasis on “addressing what has remained unquestioned or unthought” about concepts implies a more obvious ‘critical’ methodology perhaps than the kind of almost philological attention to ordinary usages that might underwrite the concept of ‘keywords’. It seems to me that this sort of methodological difference is worthwhile acknowledging, and thinking through further.

Favourite Thinkers II: Pauline Kael

Now that I live in a town almost devoid of bookshops, it’s a big occasion when I get out at the weekend and end up buying a book of any sort. Last week in Stroud, the slightly odd leftie-hippy enclave in the heart of the staunchly Tory Cotswolds, I picked up two second-hand volumes of collected reviews by Pauline Kael, the long-time film critic for The New Yorker from the late 60s through to the early 90s. I haven’t read anything by her since I was a student in the late 80s, in the days when I tended to go to the cinema on average once a day, mainly at 11pm at night. I remember liking her not least because she had a soft-spot for John Hughes-style teen movies, on the grounds that they were the only American films left which centred on questions of class.

I was primed to re-acquaint myself with Kael because earlier this year I read a great little book by Craig Seligman, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, which compares and contrasts the styles of criticism of these two quintessential ‘New York intellectuals’, both very serious writers, both interested in ‘the popular’, but one, Kael, more than the other, managing to avoid the traps of avant-garde disdain for popular taste. Reading the essays in the two volumes I bought in Stroud, Reeling (which covers the early 70s) and When the Lights Go Down, covering the ‘golden age’ of mid and late 70s Hollywood films (although one surprise is just how many films Kael didn’t seem to review, no Chinatown, or plenty of other ‘classics’ of that time, but lots of reviews of late-period John Wayne), is proving a joy, partly because lots of these films are the films I grew up watching on TV, so there is a familiarity to them, but also because reading Kael writing about them contemporaneously, placed in their 1970s milieu of the weekly or monthly review, throws films like Westworld or Taxi Driver or Saturday Night Fever into wholly new perspective, as part of their time, sitting alongside Rooster Cogburn or The Gauntlet, as part of a contested public culture of representations of violence, sexuality, liberation, aspiration, and resentment.

What I have most enjoyed about reading Kael again is the principled populism of her criticism, expressed most clearly I think in the sense that the object of her criticism is not ‘Film’ so much as ‘the movies’, ‘movies’, or a ‘movie’. This is the privileged term of her writing, and I think it captures something quite distinctive and valuable that offsets her writing from more solidly ‘academic’ styles of film analysis. ‘Movies’ indicates an appreciation of the unavoidably populist dimension of this form of, well, popular culture – Kael’s negative judgements are always shaped by a sense of disappointment that a particular movie fails to be as good a version of the kind of movie it claims to be (in one of these pieces, she describes the latest release by a reknowned French director as probably ‘a perfect film’ but for her an ‘entirely forgettable movie’). This attitude is summed up in a great definition she gives at the start of Reeling, of the ‘maze of borderlines’ in which criticism operates: “criticism is a balancing act, trying to suggest perspectives on the emotions viewers feel, trying to increase their enjoyment of movies without insulting their susceptibilities to simple, crude pop”. This is wonderful statement of Kael’s appreciation of the visceral, sensual qualities of ‘movies’ – that they can leave us ‘reeling’ – but also of her self-understanding of her own relationship to viewers/readers. This definition of criticism strikes me now, on reading it for first time some three and a half decades after Kael penned it, as standing in very stark contrast to a style of cultural theory in which discovering the emotional or ‘affective’ dynamics of enjoyment involved in unashamedly ‘mass’ forms like the movies is still, astonishingly, presented as a politically charged act of revelation and de-mystification. Reading Kael again has reminded me of the rarity of finding academic writing about popular culture that doesn’t fall into the trap of condescending towards popular taste, and of how much of the writing and thinking about ‘culture’ I have learnt most from has not been written by academics at all, but by ‘critics’ who actually like  the cultural forms, if not every example, about which they write.

Favourite Thinkers I: Stanley Cavell

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell has just published his autobiography, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press). I haven’t read it yet, it is just out, but I certainly will. I have been trying, and probably failing, to think in a ‘Cavellian’ way for a while, which mainly ends up meaning that I just use the word ‘ordinary’ a lot and in a knowing kind of way. Cavell’s distinction between knowing and acknowledging seems to me to be the basis for a profound re-thinking of  the epistemology of criticism in a more modest direction. ‘Critical’ styles of thinking often suffer from what Pierre Bourdieu called, after Cavell’s mentor and philosophical hero J.L. Austin, ‘scholasticism’. Cavell helped me to see how certain styles of critical thinking are chronically scholastic, in the sense that they tend to assume that relations of knowledge are constitutive of all human associations – and that therefore knowing how things really are, how they really work, is always a politically charged tool of de-bunking, de-mystifying, de-stabilising.  I have a fantasy book project which would reconstruct critical social theory in a Cavellian register, but that might never see the light of day.

Cavell is notoriously difficult to read (I think reading Cavell might be a bit like what it must be like to read Derrida in French), but he is also a bit of a populist – most obviously in his taste in films, which he has written a great deal about, and which he uses to make philosophical arguments –  Cavell’s favourites are 1930s and 1940s Hollywood romantic comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. Cavell has an interesting take on the ontology of film, and the screen more generally, though it quite distinct from the sort of ontological account one might find in Deleuze (a film-maker’s film theorist) or Bernard Stiegler – Cavell’s media ontology sets off from the puzzle that we manage to recognise ourselves in the narratives of different genres.

So, I am looking forward to reading his autobiography –  not least, because I increasingly find myself drawn to books which are about theory or philosophy, rather than books of theory or philosophy. This is probably age, and lack of time; but I also think there is something important about the way in which current styles of theory and philosophy  often attach themselves in important ways to Proper Names, exemplary lives, places, or events – Cavell I suspect will have interesting things to say about the relationships between thought and life for those of us who have led very ordinary lives indeed.