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What Arts and Humanities Can Mean to Our Living: a Review Essay

November 28, 2004

What arts and humanities can mean to our living: a review essay

John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (The University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Kurt Spellmeyer, Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humantties for the Twenty-first Century (State University of New York Press, 2003).

Curtis White, The Middle Mind: WHy Americans Don’t Think For Themselves (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003).

With the eclipse of Christianity as a public force in American life, many fin-de-siecle Americans invested the Western tradition of arts and humanities with the burden of forming lives and shaping imaginations. In the schools and universities, great literature, classics, history, philosophy, and art supplied exemplary answers to the perennial questions: How ought we to live? What work is worthy of a life? The three books under review in this article directly and indirectly underscore the failure of the project, and indeed the ways in which it was misconceived from the beginning.

Kurt Spellmeyer writes from the perspective of an accomplished and energetic university teacher-scholar. Rutgers recently recognized Spellmeyer’s achievements in successfully integrating teaching and research with its 2004 Faculty Scholar-Teacher Award. Among other things, Spellmeyer designs Rutgers’ undergraduate writing course which annually instructs eleven thousand. He also trains and oversees scores of instructors who teach these challenging writing-intensive classes. Widely admired for his love of learning, attentiveness to students, and enthusiasm for introducing students to the life of the mind, Spellmeyer models the imaginative and well-informed mediator between the tradition of Western humanities and contemporary students. Arts of Living blends his research and practice in teaching with the social and cultural history of the humanities. The result is a sustained critique of specialization in the arts and humanities.

Like John Guillory and Curtis White, the other two authors considered herein, Spellmeyer rejects the terms of the current culture wars in which the Left and the Right have hijacked the humanities for their own narrow and provincial purposes. Conservatives seek to preserve and revere the humanities as untouchable museum pieces, “stainless monuments of Western thought” (Spellmeyer, 4). For their part, writers on the Left set out to smash these monuments, but wind up cocooning them in layers of arcane and trendy literary theories-deconstructionism, semiology, and post-structuralism, among others. Both camps end up distancing the arts and humanities from ordinary human concerns, and in so doing confirm the widely held suspicion-so prevalent among undergraduates-that they are irrelevant or the special preserve of an intellectual elite. Against these parochial intellectual currents, Spellmeyer argues that how we instruct students to think, read and write is crucially important for their self-knowledge and self-understanding and for their ability to puncture clichs and mystifying theories. Such “pre-packaged analytical systems” function as easy reach-me-downs to explain literature and its relation to the world around them. Arts of Living has already had an impact on teaching and writing about the humanities inasmuch as it is the centerpiece of two separate panels at an upcoming national conference in composition studies.

Arts of Living ranges widely but keeps its focus closely on the cult of the expert professor that dominates the arts and humanities. Spellmeyer traces its origins to the late nineteenth century cultural shift toward professionalization aimed at consolidating and organizing nearly every field of human knowledge and practice, from management to medicine, from social work to academic research. A cultural populist at heart, Spellmeyer laments the pervasiveness of the Progressivist project, which eventually succeeded in expertly administering everything, including the humanities. Under this regime the humanities came under the near-exclusive control of the academy, and in the process cast a cloud of opprobrium over so- called amateur attempts to appropriate the humanities for enjoyment and enrichment. Following the German model of the organization of knowledge in the university, the humanities fractured into disciplinary specialties, which, as Spellmeyer argues, brought about a different type of knowledge well suited to mastery and control and less amenable to collaboration and the pleasure of communal discovery. The new power of the expert specialist encouraged a tutelary habit of mind that then, as now, instructs “ordinary” people about who they truly are and the real meaning of their deeds.

The progressive cult of the expert was not restricted to the professions and the academy, but extended to debates on the nature of American democracy. The New Republic, founded in 1917, Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, among other magazines and books, argued for the privileged position of experts in a modern democracy-the only ones capable of negotiating the complexities of twentieth-century life. Against Lippmann and the cult of expertise stood such cultural populists as William James, John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Waldo Frank, Alfred Stieglitz, and Paul Rosenfeld. As Spellmeyer writes, these figures argued that ordinary people, who knew first hand the irrepressible connection of knowledge to everyday life, and precisely not experts, were most fit to lead a democratic society. The debate over the nature of democratic culture was well fought on fairly even terms from the 1910s until the outbreak of World War II, after which the populist argument fell into desuetude. Spellmeyer’s analysis of the populist cultural tradition pays especially close attention to Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, observing that Agee understood that everything men and women do in their workaday lives-preparing food, tending to children, executing complex technical tasks, writing, or building roads-might be understood as deeds and empathetic acts when they afford an encounter with the world outside oneself, and also with the world as self (Spellmeyer, 116).

Spellmeyer’s purpose in retrieving this populist cultural tradition, which he identifies closely with the pragmatism of William James, is not to lecture his readers on what might have been. Rather, he presents it as a treasure trove of resources to reenergize the humanities in the twenty-first century. The humanities, writes Stellmeyer, can develop “an understanding of cultural life that supports our ideals of democracy,” but to do so, they must reconstitute “themselves as arts of living, arts of self- cultivation” (Spellmeyer, 201). Towards this end, he champions an interpretive rather than a condemnatory criticism, one that sympathizes with works under study instead of standing aloof from them, immediately raising suspicions about them, or snuffing them out under a blanket of literary theory (Spellmeyer, 214). An interpretive criticism invites and excites creative agency, which, Spellmeyer argues forcefully, is much needed today. “The problem at the end of the twentieth century was not that we were squirming helplessly under the dead weight of tradition, but that we had lost the capacity to imagine ourselves as genuine actors in a genuine world” (Spellmeyer, 170). Accordingly, “the work of the arts and humanities in our time is to imagine-and create-alternatives that are more satisfying, just, and beautiful” (Spellmeyer, 25).

Spellmeyer’s vision for revivifying arts and letters is attractive. And while it is beyond the scope of his book to lay out concrete strategies for realizing the new vision for the humanities, he does indicate some promising directions to pursue. Perhaps the most interesting is his recommendation that the humanities supply the human and literary dimensions to various realms of professional work, something that Robert Coles has spent his life doing, both in his teaching at Harvard and in his writing. Spellmeyer proposes a study such as “medical humanities,” which would probe “questions about the history of medical practice and institutions; about historical and cross-cultural perceptions of illness, including those represented in literary texts” (Spellmeyer, 21). A second proposal is for the humanities “to connect specialized knowledge with the everyday life-world” through art (Spellmeyer, 22). “Doctors, engineers, and web masters,” he writes, might benefit more from “the experience of actually writing fiction or making linocuts or taking photographs, then enrolling in an isolated survey course for nonmajors” (Spellmeyer, 23-24). Midway in the book, Spellmeyer directs his attention to literature courses, advocating for a “pragmatics” of reading that would explore links between works of literature and “the problems they were written to address” (Spellmeyer, 167). Spellmeyer’s strategy of “pragmatics” has met with success in the wide-reaching writing course he designed for Rutgers freshmen.

Beyond the academy, Spellmeyer celebrates the development of new, innovative human groupings that promise to decentralize knowledge and ameliorate the academy’s tyrannical hold over the humanities. “The case can be made,” writes Spellmeyer, “that the most important social c\hanges of our time are not taking place inside the academy, but in the private lives of women and men who have begun to explore new and uncoercive forms of interaction-as couples, families, support groups, ‘salons,’ and congregations-and in our courses we too might explore interactions of this same uncoercive kind” (Spellmeyer, 135).

Like Spellmeyer, John Guillory’s Cultural Capital takes as its point of departure “the crises in the humanities,” which he also understands as their increasing irrelevance to the larger society. Both authors also agree on the tie between the marginalization of the humanities and the rise of an administered society wherein the humanities come to serve the interests of American elites. Reading Guillory’s book in relation to Spellmeyer’s allows the reader to see more deeply into the historical consequences of the professionalization of American culture that occurred in the late nineteenth century. Whatever else one might have against the progressive era class of experts and professionals, their “cultural capital”-the cultural formation one needed to succeed in America at the turn of the twentieth century-required its members to be conversant in the classic texts of Western culture. For Guillory the “new class” that emerged in the progressive era is the traditional American bourgeoisie, a group with which he is not much concerned. His focus is a newer generation, the professional-managerial class of the late twentieth century. Spellmeyer’s and Guillory’s books also differ in that Spellmeyer’s interest is, finally, the restoration of the humanizing power of arts and letters; Guillory’s project is to refocus the debate on the literary canon-another front in the culture wars-and set it squarely in relation to the interests of the new professional managerial class.

Published ten years before Spellmeyer’s Arts of Living, Cultural Capital was one of the most influential works of literary criticism of the 1990s. It changed the terms of the debate on canonicity from questions concerning the pure aesthetic value of literature and questions of exclusivity to the social function of literature and the relation of aesthetic value to ideas about value in the realm of political economy. More precisely, it probed the “cultural capital”- a concept taken from the work of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu-that accrued to those benefiting from higher education.

Guillory was born and raised in New Orleans and did his undergraduate work at Tulane, which he followed with graduate studies and a Ph.D. (1980) in literature from Yale. During his stay at Yale deconstructionist scholars dominated Yale’s English department. Guillory stayed aloof from the faculty’s enthrallment with deconstruction, and turned instead to a consideration of literary history and canon formation. After appointments at Yale and Johns Hopkins, he accepted the chair of the English Department at New York University. The great innovation of his book is its call for a sociology of literature informed by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, whose writings had theretofore been seen as incompatible with the prevailing theories of American culture. In a feat of intellectual virtuosity, Guillory muscled the debate on the canon into more interesting directions. Guillory:

Where the debate speaks of the literary canon, its inclusions and exclusions, I will speak of the school, and the institutional forms of syllabus and curriculum… how works are preserved, reproduced, and disseminated over successive generations and centuries. Similarly, where the debate speaks about the canon as represeating or failing to represent particular social groups, I will speak of the school’s historical function of distributing, or regulating access to, the forms of cultural capital. By insisting on the interrelation between representation and distribution, I hope to move beyond… a confusion between representation in the political sense… and representation in the rather different sense of the relation between an image and what the image represents. (vii)

Typically the controversy over the literary canon in undergraduate education focuses on demands to include the literature of minorities in the list of Great Books of Western civilization. But, Guillory argues, a pluralist canon cannot bring about a pluralist university or society (Guillory, 5, 8). Underlying the exclusion-inclusion axis of debate is the assumption that books not included in a syllabus are intentionally excluded; but against this view Guillory argues that a syllabus is made through the process of selection using several criteria and not just that of exclusion (Guillory, 9, 33). Throughout his book, Guillory does not take a side in the canon debate but rather exposes the shortcomings in the arguments offered from both sides. For him, there is much more to canonicity than an author’s social identification. For instance, it is commonly thought that female and minority authors were deliberately excluded from the literary canon. But Guillory argues that such exclusions were not primarily motivated by sexism and racism. Rather, such works were not included for particular social and historical reasons: minority groups had little access to literacy and therefore wrote much less in proportion to white males (Guillory, 15). Today, women authors have been discovered and inserted in the canon as a result of research programs that reflect more the interests and institutional concerns of today’s academy than the actual historical significance of the works (Guillory, 15- 16).

Guillory claims that both sides of the conventional canon debate agree on three points, each of which he calls into question. Both agree that “canonical texts are the repositories of cultural value.” But, Guillory argues, the culture of schools and universities differs from and is isolated from the wider national culture (Guillory, 22, 38). Second, “the selection of texts is the selection of values.” But a focus on value ignores other selection criteria, such as genre and linguistics, which may weigh more heavily in the decision for certain texts (Guillory, 23). Finally, conservatives and their multiculturalist opponents agree that an “interpretive community” assigns value to a given work and such value “must be either intrinsic or extrinsic.” But such “interpretive communities” are largely imaginative, i.e., thought experiments. Guillory:

The scene in which a group of readers, defined by a common social identity and common values, confronts a group of texts with the intention of making a judgment as to canonicity, is an imaginary scene” and one that ignores the very real institutional context of the school with its own hierarchical ordering and special agendas. (Guillory, 26-27)

Despite the intractability of the conventional debate on the canon and the undergraduate curriculum, it seems an easier debate because its terms are familiar and resonate with the current political climate in which politics suffers a reduction to social identities. But as Guillory says, the conventional debate fails to address “the implications of a fully emergent professional- managerial class which no longer requires the cultural capital of the old bourgeoisie.” Literature no longer holds a central place in the enculturation of the American middle class; one no longer has to quote Shakespeare to be a banker. For Guillory “the decline of the humanities was never the result of the newer noncanonical courses or texts, but of a large-scale ‘capital flight’ in the domain of culture” (Guillory, 45). Students recognize this capital flight and make decisions against humanities courses in light of new economic realities. The question for most students is: “Will this or that course supply me with the cultural stock I need to succeed in the current administered society (45)?”"The professional-managerial class has made the correct assessment that, so far as its future profit is concerned, the reading of great works is not worth the investment of very much time or money. The perceived devaluation of the humanities curriculum is in reality a decline in its market value” (Guillory, 46).

Like Spellmeyer, Guillory’s analysis does not lead him to despair over the current crises in humanities education. “The university curriculum,” Guillory insists, remains “a privileged site for raising questions about the educational system as a whole…. In the present regime of capital distribution, the school will remain both the agency for the reproduction of unequal social relations and a necessary site for the critique of that system” (Guillory, 55).

In a recent interview for the Minnesota Review: A Journal of Committed Writing1, John Guillory provided a “ten-years-after” reflection on his book and its effect. He says that the intent behind Cultural Capital was to complicate the question of canonicity “to push the debate off the term ‘identity,’ or social identity, and move it more in the direction of considering schools, institutions, language, the discourse of literature, the discourse of criticism.” Concerns for identity are wrong-headed in relation to the long history of canon formation inasmuch as they emerge very late in this history and obscure other more fundamental issues connected to the canon, such as vernacularization-”the way in which language became stratified around the distinction between those who read and those who do not read”-literacy, aesthetics, and the relation of aesthetics to political economy. Guillory’s hope for those discovering and reading his book in 2004 is that these heretofore hidden historical issues emerge more forcefully into the foreground of our thinking about canon formation, curricula and course syllabi.

For Curtis White in Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003), Guillory’s book itself models the qualities that commend a work for admission into a canon, in this instance, the tradition of writingabout literature in relation to philosophy, politics, and social theory. White writes.

It is a tradition so important that I would call it not merely an intellectual tradition but an ongoing and repeatedly emphasized proposition that intellectual penetration, and ability to express complex thoughts, to perform marvelous cognitive feats, and to break open experience in new and powerful ways, are fundamental human values.

Although Guillory’s book figures prominently in White’s critique of the current state of American culture, the burden of his project has more in common with Spellmeyer’s insofar as he is interested in recapturing the humanizing force of the arts and humanities. Like Spellmeyer, White has great faith in the power of art and literature for reimagining the world. Less concerned with class interests than either Spellmeyer or Guillory, White’s analysis focuses on the poverty of our imagination. White’s inspiration is Wallace Steven’s neglected collection of essays, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1942), in which Stevens dissolves the opposition between reality and imagination. For Stevens, imagination “has the strength of reality or none at all.” It is foundational to answering the questions about “how to live” and “what to do.” White’s interest in reviving imagination has nothing in common with the romantic cult of creativity; rather his concern centers on imagination as a “social force that allows for both critique and reinvention.” It is not only about making; “it is also about how we see and how we experience.” Understood in these ways, imagination is not confined to the arts, but extends to all realms of culture, including the sciences and technology.

White is a novelist and professor of English at Illinois State University. Like Guillory, deconstructionism intruded into his graduate school experience. And also like Guillory, he chose not to embrace it, even as he felt its allure. Instead, working under Merle Brown at the University of Iowa in the 1970s, White was trained in the close reading of texts, and came to appreciate the importance of reflecting long and deeply on a poem or any work of literature or art in order for it to reveal its “power and suggestiveness.”

Whereas Arts of Living and Cultural Capital take aim at the cultural Left and Right, The Middle Mind targets middleness. This “middle mind” is for White a “third force” of American political culture. It is

pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the Right’s narrowness and incredulous before the Left’s convulsions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class.

Its institutional expression par excellance is National Public Radio and PBS. Terry Gross and her popular show on culture, Fresh Air, come in for particularly harsh criticism. White finds her work no more savory than the extremist positions of the Left and Right. In fact, it was the uproar over White’s 2002 attack on Gross’s programs in Harper’s Magazine that led to the publication of The Middle Mind. White had chastised her show for its voyeuristic discussions of culture and her “middle-minded” guests. Gross’s fans reacted sharply in the letters section of Harper’s. Whether or not one agrees with White’s withering assault on Terry Gross (a “schlock jock” in White’s final assessment), it sets up an unexpected opposition: Fresh Air-a show that purports to offer an alterative to mass commercial culture as an enemy of real imagination. Curiously, not long after the publication of White’s book, a controversy exploded between Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and Terry Gross, and continues to play out along scripted lines. Each side has posted transcripts of the acrimonious encounters between O’Reilly and Gross in the hopes of vindicating themselves from charges of unfairness and bias in their treatment of each other2. Measly stakes, indeed, White would say.

With an unsentimental eye White savages many of the icons of American popular and middle culture, from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Like Spellmeyer, White celebrates the creative capacity of criticism, even as he practices precisely the sort of highly polemical criticism that Spellmeyer rejects. White’s criticism proceeds from a close reading of texts in the tradition of the New Critics he immersed himself in graduate school. He commends only a few products of contemporary culture, among them, Radiohead’s Kid A. Indeed, White is no more compromising than Radiohead’s most recent CD, Hail to the Thief.

The most provocative feature of The Middle Mind is White’s assertion that “the imagination’s most basic social functions are criticism of the status quo and a spur to alternative ways of living.” Read in the context of Spellmeyer’s and Guillory’s books, the reader is especially alert to the deeper meaning of White’s contention that the media, American political culture, and the culture of the academic try to manage our minds to prevent undesirable change. Americans aren’t stupid, according to White, just “managed,” a reference to their unimaginative acceptance of the world as it is and a stubborn lack of faith in plausible alternatives. Such a charge resonates and indeed flows logically from the aims and purposes of an administered society directed by a professionalmanagerial elite. One may agree with White’s impatience with Americans’ uncritical habits of mind, but he does not sufficiently probe why Americans embrace them. Indeed, the wide readership of White’s book suggests that his critique of our flaccid imaginations has registered, yet it does not follow that middle- minders desire to address the world more imaginatively and more critically. There may after all be a certain feeling of liberation in being managed. Despite the book’s subtitle-Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves-the “why” remains largely unexamined.

The Middle Mind is a jolting analysis of the passivity and disengagement of the American public. Notwithstanding White’s bleak view of our current state-our “culture of despair”-he feels compelled to sketch out a plan for reform and cultural revitalization. Foundational to this restoration is “self- reflection,” a practice noticeably absent in American life. More specifically, White’s answer to the problem of impoverished imagination is “simply that we must learn to think change” (emphasis in the original). White: “Whether we call this capacity metaphysics or poetry or something else altogether is not as important as the presence of that force in the culture….[And] the models for thinking change that our history has given us are substantially philosophy and art” (White, 171). Like Spellmeyer, White’s belief in the power of the arts and humanities to provoke self-transcendence and a more authentic identification of self with the world, is among our last best hopes for the regeneration of American democratic culture.

1 http://www.theminnesotareview.org/ns61/guillory.htm

2 See http://www.foxnews.eom/story/0,2933,133177,00.html and http://freshair.npr.org/day_fa.jhtml?displayValue=day&todayDate=10/ 08/2003.

Dominic A. Aquila

Dr. Aquila is the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and a Professor of History at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Copyright Schoolcraft College Fall 2004