Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Longing for Community

Today at the library book sale I picked up a book called Confessions of the Critics, edited by H. Aram Veeser, published by Routledge in 1996.  Apparently it's a collection of writings by academic critics on the use of "autobiography" in academic criticism.  A number of people I like contributed, so I bought it.

I didn't even notice at first that Gerald Graff was one of the contributors.  I like Graff's work a lot, and I identify strongly with some of the things he wrote in "Self-Interview," like this:
Q. You became known as a polemicist in your early work, and now you're associated with the idea of "teaching the conflicts."  So would you say that combativeness is a deep personal motivation of your work?

A.  Partly but not entirely.  People think I must like conflict because I promote it as a pedagogical and curricular strategy.  In fact I dislike conflict as much as anybody.  In an odd way, my interest in conflict and polemics has always been tied to a longing for community.  I just don't think a democratic community can be sustained by papering over its divisions.  "Teaching the conflicts" for me is a way to get beyond the conflicts.  My assumption is that the more we avoid confronting conflicts the uglier they can only get [97].
Exactly: I could have written that myself.  I'd add that those who object to teaching the conflicts -- which is just another term for "critical thinking," which many people love to preach but not practice -- or who think I like to pick fights, love to see someone else get trashed.  It occurs to me that the difference is that I like to see debate, which ideally is a form of dialogue, while most people seem to prefer an unbalanced fight where a Good Guy (preferably from Our Side) beats a Bad Guy (from Their Side) into the ground.  This is something I ought perhaps to write about at more length someday, drawing on movies like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, in which one character in an argument will deliver a line that in most movies would end the conversation -- but then the other character ripostes, putting the first character on the defensive, and they go back and forth for quite some time.  That's dialogue.

Later in "Self-Interview" Graff visits some of that same territory.
Q. Your call for community makes you sound at times like Jane Tompkins, who has been writing ... about the competitive individualism and lack of community in academic institutions.

A. Yes, and I share Tompkins' complaint up to a point.  But I'm not attracted to the kind of community Tompkins seems to want, which is emotional or physical rather than intellectual.  For Tompkins intellectuality -- argumentation, debate, analysis, reasoning -- seems to be inherently selfish, competitive, and antithetical to the emotions and the body, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  For me the antidote to Damrosch's academic anticommunities lies in reconstruction rather than abandoning intellectual community, which need not and should not exclude emotion and the body.

Q. What about the view of some feminists that that model of aggressive argumentation is essentially male?

A.  It's interesting that those feminists don't hesitate to use aggressively "male" argumentation in asserting that view when it suits them.  Like Tompkins, such feminists (who do not speak for all feminists by any means) assume that community and intellectual argumentation are inherently incompatible.  As if to make the critiques of demagogues like Christina Hoff Sommers look respectable, this thinking produces touchy-feely classrooms in which students get in touch with their own "voices" instead of learning to analyze, criticize, or make an argument.  Teachers who practice this species of feminist pedagogy (which again must not be confused with feminist pedagogy as such) are in effect withholding from their students the cultural capital of argumentative discourse that they themselves command.

Q.  But haven't women's studies programs established alternative models of community to the isolation you attack?

A. They've made a start, to be sure.  But unless women's studies programs themselves are put into regular dialogue with other sectors of the university, they become another of Damrosch's anticommunities, closing themselves off from threatening outsiders.  It's unfair, however, to single out women's studies and other new "revisionist" fields for "separatism," since these new fields are merely copying the time-honored, respectable separatism of established academic departments, whose maxim has always been: consolidate your own turf and wall yourself off from anybody who might disagree with you.  In other words, my problem with the new politically oriented fields is not that they're acting like subversives but that they're acting like traditional academics [101-2].
He took the words right out of my mouth.