What I believe and why

Literary criticism in the 21st century : theory renaissance - Vincent B. Leitch 2014

What I believe and why

Although I completed my US PhD in literary studies during the 1970s, I didn’t assert an explicit point of view, an identifiable critical position, until the 1980s. In an article I published in 1987, “Taboo and Critique: Literary Criticism and Ethics,” I outlined my own project of cultural critique, fusing poststructuralism with post-Marxist cultural studies. First, I criticized the taboo on extrinsic criticism promulgated by the American New Critics and tacitly conveyed to me by most of my professors. Second, I sketched my own program by working through faults with the 1980s critical projects of Wayne Booth (liberal pluralism), Robert Scholes (structuralism), and J. Hillis Miller (conservative deconstruction), all major critical voices of the time. Where the New Critics focused on the literary text as an autonomous aesthetic object and explicitly forbade critics from linking it with society, history, psychology, economics, politics, or ethics, cultural critics of all stripes, myself included, accepted and affirmed such links. This is no easy road to travel. When Booth, Scholes, and Miller, furthermore, all insisted that close reading precede ethical critique, they retained a mandatory formalistic phase for critical inquiry, keeping the literary text as a privileged aesthetic object on the way to broadened social concerns. They got things backwards.

The 1987 article became the opening pages of my book, an unabashed credo, Cultural Criticism, Literary Theory, Poststructuralism (1992), arguing a handful of positions on perennial literary topics consistent with a fin-de-siècle US cultural studies informed by poststructuralism. It was evident in my piece that I had bought into cultural studies, having been earlier identified with poststructuralism, particularly Yale deconstruction. However, my first book, Deconstructive Criticism (1983), followed an arc from French structuralism and poststructuralism through Yale deconstruction to the Boundary 2 group (cast as an alternative deconstructive project) to the wide-ranging anarchist projects of Michel Foucault and of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In the end, it parodied Yale deconstruction. Things became even clearer with my next book, American Literary Criticism from the 1930s to the 1980s (1988). It covered thirteen schools and movements, starting with Marxism and New Criticism, adding as firsts for histories of American criticism four separate chapters on engagé social criticism stemming from the New York Intellectuals, Feminism, Black Aesthetics, and Cultural Studies. The work traced over the course of 500 sober pages both formalist projects that dehistoricize, depoliticize, and aestheticize literary studies and antiformalist movements that deepen and extend cultural criticism. My trajectory was clear.

In 1987, I got divorced after 17 years of marriage. Also, I moved from working at a small private Southern liberal arts university for 13 years to a large Midwestern state research university. When the dust settled, I ended up a single parent with two young teenagers. Over the next ten years, I shepherded them through high school and university. These were rough times. Up close and personal I learned about the economics and politics of postmodern culture.

On the verge of bankruptcy, having doled out $30,000 for legal expenses surrounding the divorce, I managed after 18 months of hand-to-mouth apartment dwelling to buy a house. It was done through creative financing by a Realtor along with his banker and appraiser colleagues. It appeared a miracle of free-market neoliberal economics. Why? I rented the house for six months. That became the 5% down payment. I obtained a subprime adjustable rate mortgage from a local bank, plus a small personal loan on the side from the Realtor. It all seemed a wonder, going from near-bankrupt to homeowner in 18 months. Lucky for me, the interest rate did not shoot up, nor did the price of houses drop. Eventually, I was able to refinance with a new fixed-rate mortgage, which, however, cost several thousand dollars in closing fees added to the principal of the loan. Debt proliferates.

As you might imagine, during this period I felt chronically insecure. I was fearfully checking interest rates on a regular basis. I witnessed to my astonishment the moral relativism (“flexibility”) of the real estate, appraisal, and banking industries. By the late 1990s President Clinton solidified the changes going on, radically deregulating banking and investment, and tearing down key firewalls erected during the Great Depression by President Roosevelt. Branch banks started to pop up all over the place. Credit was increasingly easy to get. Home ownership rates were rising. And single-headed households were more and more common. Critics continue to confirm, initially in the wake of feminism, that the personal is linked with the social, political, and economic. My personal story felt more and more like an introduction to the politics and economics of our late postmodern era.

The day the Clinton White House announced a freeing up of student loans in the early 1990s, I was overjoyed and relieved as, it turned out, were bankers, politicians, and university administrators. My oldest child was just starting university on her way to BA and MA degrees—and ultimately $46,000 in loans, despite her scholarships, summer jobs, and Teaching Assistantship. My youngest child soon racked up on his BA degree $10,000 in loans. I don’t recall anyone in my 60s generation carrying much debt for their college education, whereas my children, like the majority in the US, face a decade or two or three of debt repayments. (When I was a visiting Fulbright professor in Northern Europe in the 1970s, I witnessed free university education where students received additional support from state stipends.) So I was misguided to be overjoyed at President Clinton’s apparent munificence, not realizing from the outset it was a way to shift financing from state institutions to individuals, enabling the government to withdraw from paying for education. I did not recognize nor condemn this move to privatization, but I did register it immediately in growing anxiety about interest rates, credit scores, debt loads, and the financial future of my children. There is a politics of feelings and everyday family intimacies that reveals to us what’s really going on in the culture. This is intimate critique, an essential survival skill for our times.

At the same moment my children moved in with me, the continent-wide retirement system for many North American university teachers began to change after decades of stability. When during the 1970s I first entered TIAA—CREF (Teachers Insurance Annuity Association—College Retirement Equities Fund), there were two accounts where I could allocate my money (a sum equal to 10% of my annual salary contributed by my university): (1) TIAA Traditional [Bonds and Mortgages] (founded 1918) and (2) CREF Stock (established 1952). Most new faculty members at that time split their funds 50/50% or 40/60%, with other permutations possible. Arriving at a new university position in 1987, I continued the split I had had at the previous job (this time the school contributed a figure equal to roughly 15% of my salary). But starting in 1988, things at TIAA—CREF began to change more and more tellingly over the next several decades. In 1988, a new choice was added to the earlier two—the CREF Money Market Account. In 1990, two additional investment accounts appeared, CREF Bond Market and CREF Social Choice. Over the course of the 1990s other far more risky CREF options became available: Global Equities (1992), Equity Index and Growth (both 1994), Real Estate (1995), and Inflation-Linked Bond (1997). Then in 2002, TIAA—CREF opened 18 separate mutual fund accounts to retirement contributions. The year 2004 witnessed seven brand-new Lifecycle Funds, complemented by three more such accounts in 2007. In 2006, nine other TIAA—CREF retirement-class mutual funds emerged. If you’re counting, this means that instead of the two previous choices, I and several million other participants now faced four dozen choices within the TIAA—CREF family of funds. By 2014, the number had risen to 77 funds. During this period, many of us, especially me, got befuddled.

Along the way I wondered, do I or my colleagues know enough about stocks, bonds, real estate, indexes, rating agencies, and so on to make good investment choices? During the 1990s, like it or not, we were all being turned into individual investors. That for me was a worrisome new burden. Previously I did not read investment account prospectuses and quarterly reports, nor did I monitor investment news. When my home computer got linked to the Internet in the late 1990s, I began to monitor finances, as well as to work, on a 24/7 basis. If it were not for their rules limiting the number of trades each quarter, TIAA—CREF might have turned me into a day trader over the course of the 1990s. This is my personal experience with mainstream casino capitalism, the triumphalist neoliberal free-market dogma spreading from the 1970s, which went into hyper drive in the nineties. It has become harder and harder for me not to talk about the recent reconfiguration of money, mortgages, work, education, retirement, debt, and their impact on the family as well as day-to-day life. The way I see it, this is a mode of criticism we need. It is different from the impersonal speculative way many critics do critique. Nearer home, the industry calls it “financial literacy.” I prefer the broader intimate critique.

The social as well as economic transformations of our times have affected me in dramatic ways. It first started to register on me and my family in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before my generation, there were two divorces in my huge Irish-Italian American Catholic family, a social network rooted in Islip and Babylon Townships on the south shore of Long Island. In my generation, there have been several dozen divorces, plus lots of mobility given a nationwide job market. Personally, I feel I have been living in exile as migrant labor since I got my first job in the South, followed by positions in the Midwest and the Southwest—four decades away from “home” and counting. The single-headed household, often uprooted from the extended family, caught up in mortgage and student debt, increasingly worried about health care expenses plus retirement, and befuddled by financial choices, describes not only my reality but that of so many others in the dramatically shrinking middle class. I hasten to add that my two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, have long shuttled in and out of the working poor, a new and growing class of the nickled and dimed, without retirement accounts, health insurance, or owned homes. So much for the world of family values.

The psychological syndrome that fits our late postmodern social insecurity is, I believe, panic attacks. I’ve had them. This is different from the paranoia typical of the Cold War period of my youth. Panic attacks involve more or less continuous stress, anxiety, and distraction, compounded by overwork, caffeine, sugar, excessive options at every turn, speed, multitasking, a 24/7 reality, too much news and media, an absence of quiet time and relaxation, not to mention leisure. Some people seem to thrive on this regimen. The rising generation appears more adapted to it, texting like bandits while popping anxiety pills in record numbers.

The mode of criticism that is best suited to these times, it has seemed obvious to me, is a renewed ideological and cultural critique with political economy, particularly finance, at center stage. It also has to deal with the feelings, emotions, and intimacies that social tides set in motion. Increasingly since the 1980s, I have felt that my job as a university professor entails teaching not only protocols of close reading but techniques of cultural critique.

Unplanned happenings, unexpected events, and accidents have played a decisive role in my personal life and career. Very early on, my economics teacher at the state Merchant Marine academy in New York told me to consult Heilbronner’s The Worldly Philosophers for my course project on nineteenth-century economic theory. When I asked a librarian about worldly philosophy and Heil-something, he sent me to Heidegger. A fateful event. I was 18 years old and just opening to the world of literature, philosophy, and economics, but with neither direction nor mentor. Two years later, following a Do-It-Yourself immersion in existentialism, Beat literature, and left Keynesian economics, I walked out of this military academy liberated (no more uniforms) and became a literature major.

The month after I started on my new road, my younger brother, a high school senior, died in a drunk-driving car accident. That had the effect of solidifying my anger at God into agnosticism and bouts of atheism. My eleven years of rigorous Cold War American Catholic education, all in uniform, predating the liberalizations of the Vatican II Council and teaching dreadful medieval dogmas, prepared me poorly for the world. Not surprisingly, I am a long-time secularist, who believes in freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion. I have little good to say about fundamentalisms, which have visited members of my family as well as a broad swath of the globe. I am nonplused, if bemused, by New Age spirituality. I retain respect for liberation theologies. But, in general, I keep a wary eye on religion.

I had to play catch-up on literary studies, being two years behind my cohort. So I undertook a three-semester MA to compensate and satisfy my curiosities. The week I graduated a military draft notice arrived. It was a few days before Christmas, and I was applying for PhD programs. Quickly I took a six-month spring semester teaching job in a local high school to earn money and to forestall the draft. It was 1968, and I decided unequivocally I would go into exile to Canada or possibly Sweden if I were drafted into the Army. Vietnam changed forever my feelings about American imperialism and nationalism, teaching me the necessity of critical patriotism. The Vietnam War was stupid, immoral, and criminal, as was the post-9/11 war in Iraq. Later in this book, I shall have more to say about family, education, religion, government, and other spheres of socialization and ideology.

Let me jump ahead. By chance I was asked to referee a proposal in autumn 1994 for a “Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism.” The publisher turned to me, I figured, because of my prior books. I ended up endorsing the idea of a Norton anthology devoted to theory, but not the specific proposal, recommending against the proposer, sketching what shape a proper anthology should take, and listing who should be considered for the job (not me). A few months later the editor showed up in my office and asked me if I would be interested. I hesitated but ultimately accepted with two understandings: that I could recruit a team of editors, and that revised editions, if deemed desirable, would happen on roughly eight-year rotations. I didn’t want the anthology to become a way of life and a full-time job. And I believed a collective approach to the task, never tried before with large theory anthologies, made the best sense. This was summer 1995. Luckily, it was an opportune moment for me because I had just finished the manuscript of my book, Postmodernism—Local Effects, Global Flows (1996). As it turned out, my next book was the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001), with me as general editor along with a team of five handpicked editors. The opening page of the Preface, drafted by me and approved by the team, defined “theory” this way for new generations of students and faculty:

Today the term encompasses significant works not only of poetics, theory of criticism, and aesthetics as of old, but also of rhetoric, media and discourse theory, semiotics, race and ethnicity theory, gender theory, and visual and popular culture theory. But theory in its newer sense means still more than this broadly expanded body of topics and texts. It entails a mode of questioning and analysis that goes beyond the earlier New Critical research into the “literariness” of literature. Because of the effects of poststructuralism, cultural studies, and the new social movements, especially the women’s and civil rights movements, theory now entails skepticism toward systems, institutions, norms; a readiness to take critical stands and engage in resistance; an interest in blind spots, contradictions, distortions (often discovered to be ineradicable); and a habit of linking local and personal practices to the larger economic, political, historical, and ethical forces of culture.

This is what I believe. And I came by it the hard way. It is not my teachers’s theory. It’s a survival skill for our times that I advocate throughout this book.

My motivation for undertaking the anthology project was largely missionary. After I completed my PhD on the history of poetry and poetics, I converted to criticism and theory as a specialty. There were no such specialty programs when I was coming up. Like others in my cohort, I “reengineered” myself over the next decade through self-directed study, research, and teaching interrupted with short periods of formal postdoctoral education: Summer Seminar funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (1976), School of Criticism and Theory (1978), Fulbright-Hays Theory Lectureship (1979), International Institute for Semiotic and Structural Studies (1981), Alliance Française in Paris (1982). I also completed a bachelor’s program in French while I was working as a beginning professor during the 1970s. In its post-formalist first wave, theory in North America was vital, exciting, life-enhancing, not the narrow and deadening dogma of the previous era. I was a convert.

For me the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd ed., 2010) was, and is, designed to accomplish several missions: to dignify and monumentalize theory; to consolidate the many gains of contemporary theory; to defend theory during the culture wars, which were started by the antitheory right-wing in the mid-1980s and persist today; most important, to introduce students and faculty, in the US and abroad (where nearly half of its sales happen), to a wide-ranging, provocative, and accessible textbook that is both scholarly and up-to-date, being constructed from the standpoint of twenty-first-century cultural critique. (Forgive the promo.) I see myself as both an insider and a populizer. I make no apologies to my hierophantic colleagues. The mission lives on.

Here is a piece of illuminating background. I was flabbergasted and bitterly angry when I heard ex-CIA agent Philip Agee on a 1970s late-night television interview explain how in the 1950s and 60s the CIA recruited candidates at Catholic colleges. Why Catholic colleges? It turns out the CIA preferred to recruit there because Catholics understand hierarchy, discipline, and duty. “Son of a bitch,” I spluttered. From kindergarten to tenth grade (ages 5 to 16 years), I was enrolled in Catholic schools. I wore a uniform every day and marched to class, went to confession on Saturdays, attended 9.00 a.m. mass in uniform each Sunday. They taught me acquiescence to authority, selflessness, and endless rules (preconditions for fascism). As a theorist, I teach skepticism toward authority, self-assertive cultural criticism, and intimate critique.

My Postmodernism—Local Effects, Global Flows was followed by Theory Matters (2003) and Living with Theory (2008). All three books practice cultural criticism rooted in theory. What holds this later work together is an ongoing project of mapping as well as evaluating postmodern culture. I construe postmodernity as neither a philosophy nor a movement nor a style, but a new period that started in the 1970s and has continued to morph until this day. I have more to say about it in Chapter 8. Not uncritically, I am working in the wake of Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, and the British New Times project (Hall and Jacques), all dating from the early 1990s and continuing into the new century. My experience and observations confirm that we are still living in a postmodern culture, a distinct post-Welfare State period, more or less helpfully labeled postindustrial, post-Fordist, consumer society, late capitalism, and globalization.

What most dramatically characterizes postmodern culture for me is disorganization. Think of the TIAA—CREF case. On the one hand, financial consumers are offered an excessive array of choices of investment products pitched to their tolerances for risk, time frames, and preferences. On the other hand, who has the time and expertise to make intelligent choices? I’m confused, stressed, perplexed. I seek a guide for idiots or dummies, the latest edition since the pace of change is rapid. This is a symptomatic genre for our times. As a wine drinker (my Italian heritage), I am befuddled by the number of decent Chardonnay and Syrah/Shiraz wines under $20 a bottle. This largesse dates from the wine revolution starting in the 1970s. Wine Spectator magazine (established 1976) nowadays evaluates 20,000 wines annually. I have a similar experience in a bookstore (for example, the self-help section), a supermarket (the cereal aisle), a footwear store (walls of sneakers). The speeded-up proliferation of commodities and choices, plus the disaggregation of niches and spheres, render the big picture perhaps knowable yet unmasterable. Hence, the value of mapping. Theory has not escaped postmodern disorganization, a claim I graph in Figure 1 and discuss in this book.

One last unexpected turn of events helps explain what I believe and why. I couldn’t find a position the year I received my PhD, the US literature job market having crashed several years earlier (1970 to be exact and continuing today). So, I ended up teaching on a one-year interim appointment in the Department of Humanities at the University of Florida. There I met Gregory Ulmer, a new PhD in Comparative Literature who had just secured a full-time tenure-track job. Two decisive things occurred during that year. First, Ulmer introduced me to French theory. That shook me up and helped me get past my New Critical training and frame of mind. Second, the job required me to teach multiple sections of Humanities 211, 221, 231 during the fall, winter, and spring quarters. The course content was set by the department, with only a few open spots. One step ahead of the students, I learned and taught Ancient & Medieval, Renaissance & Enlightenment, and Modern Western Humanities. The curriculum programmatically juxtaposed art history, literature, philosophy, religion, and music (with the latter handled by a musicologist in large lectures). A typical module would be the Parthenon, Plato’s Republic, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Aristotle’s Poetics or Abstract Expressionism, Existentialism, Beat Literature, and Bebop Jazz. Although it covered old-fashioned intellectual rather than social history, the program put me in touch with big pictures. It struck a resonant cord within me. Early and late, my work has instinctively aimed for wide-ranging comparative history.

The program also introduced me to art history (specifically architecture, sculpture, and painting). Out of this material came a life-long interest in contemporary painting, plus modern museums, galleries, art journals and books, and local art scenes. When I first came to think about postmodernism, I naturally turned to painting as well as to literature, philosophy, and popular arts (I am a child of the 60s). One of the genuine benefits of construing postmodernism as a period, not just a school of philosophy or a style, is the necessity to investigate political economy and society as well as the arts high and low. Postmodern fusion, multiculturalism, and backlash manifest themselves, I find, in the period’s food, wine, fashion, film, music, art, philosophy, religion, literature, and theory. Through accidents and blindly, it appears, I was being prepared and preparing myself early on for a job of cultural criticism and critique. Our times demand it.