Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Foundations of the New Traditionalism

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Foundations of the New Traditionalism

Article excerpt

MOST WORKING CRITICS acknowledge the contribution that critical theory and cultural studies have made to the discipline of literary scholarship. A careful study of articles and books that precede the 1970s reveals that some scholars tended to conduct their work without a fully articulated awareness of their metaphysical, linguistic, and epistemological assumptions. It took some time for the metacritical inquiries of the Chicago School, the New York intellectuals, the phenomenological critics, structuralists, and poststructuralists to find their way into the daily practice of scholars primarily concerned with textual and contextual criticism. But in the 1970s, in the wake of a cultural revolution that drew sustenance from humanities departments, a new generation of literary intellectuals made these foundational concerns central to their daily critical practice. Their motives were mixed. Some were genuinely concerned with what they saw as the limited perspective offered by new critics and traditional historicists. Others were politically motivated, feeling that the foundational assumptions of traditional critics were elitist, exclusionary, and oppressive. Still others, more mercenary and careerist, saw the rise of poststructuralism, neomarxism, feminism, and multiculturalism as a means to publication, tenure, and prominent positions in elite research institutions. Now, however, as English departments have become Balkanized by debates revolving around literary theory, it becomes important to assess the losses as well as the gains of the methodological revolution.

One loss emerges from the fact that the most altruistic of the disciplinary reformers, who originally set about to eliminate elitism, exclusion, and oppression, have been replaced by a new generation of elitists with an equally oppressive agenda. We are all familiar with the proverbial cuss-words: "taste," "greatness," "essence," "beauty," "humanity," and, worst of all, "objectivity." To speak these words in the halls of an English department is often tantamount to yelling profanities during a church service. One wonders how a discipline that prides itself on the free exchange of ideas could so willingly capitulate to implicit censuring and social norming.

But there is another more damaging loss that operates at a practical and work-a-day level, a loss that weighs not just against individuals but against our academic discipline as a whole. Symposiums, conferences, and informal discussions among English professors often reveal that scholars who want to talk about the identifiable "meaning" of a literary text, the intentions or motives of an author, or the characteristics of a literary movement, will often be confronted with a barrage of accusations regarding the "naivete" of these "essentialist" assumptions. As literary scholars, we seem to be stuck at the gate, and many potentially fruitful discussions are whistled dead, declared false starts by a theoretician.

And what are the consequences? Humanistic study becomes less productive, less pertinent to the lives of students, public intellectuals, and society at large. In a country where we must contend with a powerful anti-intellectual tradition and the pervasive influence of capitalist utilitarianism, we are finding our discipline significantly diminished and less valuable to an academic culture that stresses the idea that knowledge has an intrinsic value regardless of its use.

One way to diminish the effects of these conflicts is to establish a new domestic policy within the academy, one borrowed from the foreign policy of the 1970s--Detente. We can enter into a mutual non-aggression pact with our colleagues, each of us understanding that the nature of the mind, culture, and language point us not toward answers but mystery. In exploring the attitude necessary for the discovery of wisdom, the medieval Hebrew philosopher Moses Maimonides said that

   If you admit the doubt, and do not persuade yourself to believe that
   there is a proof for things which cannot be demonstrated, or to try
   at once to reject and positively to deny an assertion the opposite
   of which has never been proved, or attempt to perceive things which
   are beyond your perception, then you have attained the highest
   degree of human perfection. … 
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