Thursday, December 17, 2015


JSTOR claims to inhabit the territory “WHERE NEWS MEETS ITS SCHOLARLY MATCH”.  That sounds promising, much better than the Millennial fixations about dogs, their fav songs, and lists of how to best seduce each other.  I don’t know whether new “online magazines” are really that new, or whether I’ve just stumbled onto a line of connections: Aeon, Medium, -- some of which have little side-pockets for people who write well enough to be printed -- just not paid.  I don’t know how many others are out there.  Many are simply compendiums from other sources.  I had not seen “The Point” until now when JSTOR quoted it.   The first article I read was “an abridged version of an article that appears in “The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions”, edited by Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

This article by Lisa Ruddick shook me up.  First, it is meant to address the cruelty of hard-core criticism and theory in the world of “English” which I hardly brushed through at the U of Chicago.  Second, I’m pretty sure that the author is a professor I tried to pull onto my thesis committee addressing “The Poetics of Liturgy.”  She protested, partly I think because I was NOT a hard-core, “high theorist”, by which I think she means in this article what was then (1982) called “post-modern” or “post-structuralist.”  At that point I couldn’t understand it, though my classmate Kenner was always talking about the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” saying “what does this MEAN?”

Prof. Lisa Ruddick

At the time, 1982, Prof. Ruddick simply seemed remarkably wary, unlike the then-minister of First Unitarian Church, who just about had to be on the panel given the subject, but who hated my thesis from the get-go because I didn’t agree with his conviction that any religious service that wasn’t Anglican Vespers was NOT religious, and therefore my love of Blackfeet ceremonies was ridiculous. He belonged to a sub-group of Unitarians investigating formal word-centered liturgies and he had exactly the attitude of vicious and defensive prestige described in this essay.  (Not everyone in the group was like that, but they did not admit women.)

I should have been guided to the university anthropologists.  The closest I came was a priest whose writing on reconciliation and missionary outreach was based on deep commonalities.  Father Richard Schreiter, as a Catholic, could hardly be on a panel for a Unitarian.  Not because he wouldn’t be welcome but because the Catholics would have considered it a breach of boundaries.   Maybe not, now.

The article in question is “The inhumanity of literary criticism”  by Lisa Ruddick. “Interviews with 70 young English scholars and a survey of papers published in a major journal reveal a troubling side of current literary criticism: academic norms scorn discussion of people’s inner lives, leaving critics hesitant to advocate for anything that smacks of “uncool” human feeling.”  I’m broadening the context to other social groups.  I think it pervades our culture.  I think the idea of high academic anything makes people arrogant.

As things have turned out more than three decades after my thesis struggle, I’m finding my persistence paying off as I meet the new understanding of brain function, esp. the generous ones that include the whole body.  At last there is a “scientific” reason to challenge the hegemony of sharp logical "male" thought by showing that just below that word-and-precedent-dominated academic privilege is a whole world of emotional and autonomic wisdom and functioning, passion and bonding.  Women and people of color literally embody that now scientifically confirmed human functioning of heart and embracing, and at last they are not slow to turn aside the sharp blades of patronizing criticism.  The blades no longer cut.

I don’t think this is simply a pendulum swing and I don’t think this endorses the modern liberal emphasis on therapy, “healing”, and individual “love” for the world and puppies in politically correct fashion.   Ruddick quotes an academic writing coach (in my day that could not have existed -- if you couldn’t write, you got out!) as saying her clients sense “‘an immorality they can’t put their finger on’ in the thought-world of the humanities.”  Thinking back, I know what she means: it is a defensive hegemony based on the idea that there is only ONE pinnacle and they are it.  This superiority meant they had no moral accountability, because morals were all childish old-fashioned stuff.  Since then, much has been dismantled or challenged. 

Richard Gustave Stern

People like Langdon Gilkey or Martin Marty had too much heart and conscience to join in this thinking.   The novelist Richard Stern was perilously close to it when he explained to a young man who wanted to take his writing course that the young man probably should not take it this particular quarter because the only students were four women, and he couldn’t properly teach them.  They wouldn’t get it.  The student should wait until a dozen brilliant men signed up, the proper sort.  He explained this in front of we four women.  It did not help me that he took me to be rural, which he understood to be Gothic, though he was the one from Gotham.  But he was charming and we indulged him, knowing that all those brilliant young men had transferred to the Business School.

I myself have joined in the despising of the bourgeois, the middle-class, and the defended family -- which are at their peak flowering in rural and small town life.  To be “middle” is to be Victorian.  How we love our BBC!  I should rethink that.

Part of this superiority complex full of narcissism is a denigration of committed relationships.  The idea is that the more daring, the faster, the more boundary-less sex is,  the more it shows strength and potency because it “shatters a person or violates social norms.”  It is abstract (therefore better than specific) and “glamorizes cruelty.”  The superior being is beyond such sentimental mush. ("Fifty Shades of Gray," anyone?)


Then come these two remarkable paragraphs about a story analysis in the journal ELH:English Literary History.  Ruddick is either brave or oblivious, as she ventures onto third-rail Lambda and Lolita territory.  I’ll have to do a bit of searching to find the article in question, but these two paragraphs must be read very carefully to see their irony.  I’m not sure Ruddick realizes that there are whole contingents of people who take child-using seriously as an entitlement and even do not flinch at simply killing used-up children.  The sheer horror of the extremes of this line of thought might have been beyond even Henry James, let alone Ruddick.

The piece I find most troubling is an article on a short story by Henry James. This article proposes that if one faces a choice between having sex with children and protecting them, ‘perhaps one should let oneself desire the child, and—relinquishing the gratifications of protection—let the child die.’ Sexually precocious children should ‘perhaps’ be allowed a death of ‘innocence’ that will supplant the pleasures of childhood with ‘other pleasures’ delivered by adult lovers. James’s short story supposedly conveys this moral. But the lesson is said to apply in real life as well, wherever adults might be tempted to issue ‘calls for the protection of children.’ The story is said to reveal ‘the dire results of protecting children from desire”—anywhere. For today’s anti-pedophile perpetrates the ‘potential violence’ of ‘speaking on [children’s] behalf.’

Henry James

“There is a place in academe for scholarship that responsibly weighs the benefits and costs to children of sex with adults. But the present piece offers no empirical findings. Instead, it manipulates postmodern commonplaces to argue that people who try to shield children from ‘the depredations of influence and seduction’ are imputing to children boundaries that they do not have. Children cannot be ‘corrupted’ sexually because no child has a core of selfhood that has not already been thoroughly penetrated or ‘influenced’ by society and language. We are asked to acknowledge ‘selves’ constitutive corruption.” For the mere phenomenon of influence is apparently so destabilizing that it “throws into question the attribution—particularly to oneself—of substantive depths, of ‘inner’ selves or meaning behind appearances.” A haze of familiar antihumanist abstractions thus eases in the practical conclusion as to the pointlessness of trying to protect children’s “‘inner’ selves” from violation.”

I’ve heard this argument in the mouths of both European aristocrats and local drunks.  Everything I read about child development confirms that sexual or violent behavior too early in a child’s life will deform and possibly destroy them.  The formation of a self -- in fact, the constant re-forming around a dependable identity supported by a community -- is crucial to the child and to human society.  But who is making the case for this or explaining how to go about it?  And doesn’t acceptance of the lesser cruelties of dominance, the need to control, the obsession with status, in fact lay the foundation for abusing children to their death?

Ruddick closes this way:  “We do not teach our recruits [in English departments] any of the contemplative practices that might help them to keep their self-compassion intact in the face of such an abasement of self. Under such conditions, the asceticism of academia has become twisted and mean. The revulsion against human evil has devolved into a name-calling that rules out much of what makes life meaningful. At the same time, our finest inner promptings come under discursive attack as something we should be embarrassed to own.”

I’ll come back to this.

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