Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cho Seung-hui and Emma Smith’s “So What”?: Why the Humanities Don’t Matter, or, Into Our Own Dark Woods

[cross-posted at Literature Compass]

There has been a lot of angst expressed on academic and especially on literary studies-focused weblogs this past week regarding the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech University. Apparently, the fact that the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was an English major, as well as a creative writer, has inspired a crisis among some that, at the end of the day, the humanities and liberal arts don’t actually humanize anyone. I thought it might be productive, especially in light of Emma Smith’s post on the recent Shakespeare Association of America conference [in which she muses that, at conferences, the important meta-questions of the discipline rarely get confronted], to highlight here some excerpts from conversations on this subject unfolding elsewhere on the blogospshere, add some of my own thoughts, and see if we might have a collective conversation here as well.

Over at the literary studies group weblog The Valve, Scott Eric Kaufmann [our friend of Acephalous, where his thoughts are cross-posted] wrote the following [see similar threads unfolding at In The Middle here and at Quod She here]:

Like everyone else this week, I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech. I fret over the university context one minute, the comparative one the next—two hundred people died senselesly in Iraq yesterday—but more than anything else, it is the professional context that dogs my mind. Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them. His plays are compelling evidence that Plato was onto something in Book X of The Republic: literature originates in the base, irrational place to which it appeals; and the production and consumption of it succours the worst in us. Put mildly, Cho’s work was not cathartic. He fell prey to the vicious cycle of unreason Socrates described.

As a senior English major at Virginia Tech, he could have taken courses that appeal to the most hardened culture warrior—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Augustan Literature, Romantic Literature, Renaissance Literature, &c.—or those the cultural studies side considers morally edifying—Ethnic Children’s Literature, Introduction to Women’s Literature, Introduction to African-American Literature, Literature and Ecology, Postcolonial Cultural Studies, Contemporary Horror, Women in Sport, &c. My intention is not to declare a pox on both houses, but to point to how thin this justification of our work is. One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist. On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read.

In the responses to Scott’s post, at both The Valve and Acephalous [which also deals at length with teaching Huckleberry Finn and with Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World--on which point and related to the idea that literature could contribute to democracy, see also the Victorian scholar Caroline Levine's post on Claybaugh's book here], the following comments were offered:

[Joseph Kugelmass]: None of the things we value in ordinary, practical life, come with the guarantees we seem to expect from literature. Medical treatments are almost never 100% effective, particularly psychiatric treatments and medications. Nor are supportive environments and close-knit families always able to produce happy, well-adjusted individuals. Still, none of this leads us to consider such things to be without merit.

[Rich Pulasky]: In terms of the humanization of ordinary people by the humanites—I think that if this really occured, you’d expect grad students in the humanites to be significantly more humane than a sample of the population. I don’t think that this is observationally true. They are certainly more educated and articulate, of course, and can rationalize their choices better than the average person. . . . I think that there really is a sense in which novels are effective, and which education is effective at being “micropolitical”, that has nothing to do with making individuals more humane. Attitudes of reform within literature become class markers. Being racist, sexist, or homophobic, for instance, is socially disapproved for more than just humane reasons—it’s also lower class. I think that a lot of good has been done by this element of class emulation.

[Simon]: if we think blaming violent films and video games for massacres is silly (and I think we can all agree that it is) then it is equally silly to expect reading novels to prevent them. Literature can be as lurid in its description of violence as film can, but drawing a connection between cultural consumption and behaviour is impossible; simply, the determining factors are far too complex. If they were all that simple, perhaps horrific crimes could be more easily prevented, but culture - and life in general - would be pretty dull.

Of course, many blog commentators have pointed out in various ways that, as a possibly deeply insane [or psychotic] person, Cho Seung-Hui needed the help of mental health professionals more than he needed the help of literature or creative writing professors [and Michael Uebel has pointed out here how, even within mental health circles this incident poses troubling questions]. My own feelings [for the moment, anyway], as I posted in similar fashion at The Valve, are as follows:

I never thought reading literature humanized anyone or made them better citizens or better persons or more moral or whatever. My favorite two books on this point are James Anderson Winn’s The Pale of Words and Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins [Readings’ book, especially, is a must-read, I think, for anyone planning a future working in the humanities at the university level–it is a pessimistic but also hopeful book]. Furthermore, what Cho did at Va. Tech. has nothing to do with his being an English major [or even a creative writer] and it really surprises me how many people are anguishing over that fact. Art and literature attract devils as well as angels and both sane and insane men and women create art and literature. Of course, as a professor of medieval and other literatures and as a scholar of literature [and of literary and cultural thought], obviously I have to have some faith that what might be called the cultivation of good reading [and interpretive] practices [which practices, further, would not be couched in overt ideological contexts] and how the teaching of those practices might matter somehow in the inculcation of certain types of moral [and other] understanding in our students. But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer. Remember that moment in the 1931 movie Frankenstein where the monster is stumbling around in a field somewhere and he sees a girl throwing flowers into a well and he’s like, “ooooo, ugh, oooo, cool” [said in his inimitable inarticulate way]? And then he’s also throwing flowers in the well and having fun? And then said girl ends up at the bottom of the well? In this sense, the “beautiful” can inspire wildly different responses–both good and evil–in different persons. In any case, the incident at Virginia Tech does not indict the humanities; I thought we stopped carrying that flag a long time ago. You can never teach morality. You can only model it. And maybe live it, in imperfect fits and starts, and only with the recognition that morality is more related to affect than it is to principles or rules or even final actions.

As to the relation of pedagogy to leading students to the better sorts of lives, I stopped agonizing about that a while ago. I don’t mean to say I don’t care about pedagogy [I care a lot], but that I don’t anymore torture myself worrying about whether or not I am leading my students to liberalism or humanism [or, humaness] or any other political or philosophical mode of being/thought, either through hectoring or a more subtle and laudably non-ideological method. Is there a way we can merely “be ourselves” [?], simply modelling to our students our desire[s] to read and think out loud and wonder and be moved? More and more, I worry less about students’ moral bearings [and lack thereof] and more about their emotional affect. I worry about their ability to be enchanted and to feel–”to feel” in the sense of allowing themselves to be swept away by art and literature into the lives of other persons. There is some kind of predisposition, I think, to being “open” to that possibility, without which ethics, of any sort, cannot be possible.

Is it possible to discuss this issue in a way that does not necessitate either arguing that: a) the study of literature contributes to a process of “humanizing” or “making better” certain human subjects, or b) the study of literature could never contribute to a process whereby certain human subjects could be led to living better lives?


Eileen Joy said...

Hopefully, Scott Eric Kaufmann will not mind if I post here some of his further thoughts posted at The Valve, and maybe he'll join us here as well:

"First, I should acknowledge the willful naïvety of this [his original Valve] post ["Virginia Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose"]. One of the reasons I thought it inadequate in the first place was because the events of last week so marked my thoughts about Amanda’s book. I know that shouldn’t have been the case, but life intervened. Second, I should say a little more about why I’m willfully naïve: Edward James Olmos. I must’ve watched "Stand and Deliver" fifty times growing up. It’s the reason why continuing into graduate school was not the typical non-decision of the English graduate student: I always wanted to make a difference. As I said above, this has led me to be a little wily; liberal students have their expectations, conservative their fears, libertarians their sense of superiority—I kid, I kid, but only a little bit, as libertarians tend to be autodidacts and fiercely independent-minded, despite the fact that at this point in their intellectual development they’re spouting platitudes. In my "Stand and Deliver" moments, I strongly reject Eileen’s claim (which echoes a point Rich made earlier):

'But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer.'

I can teach anyone literature, damn it. I will reach these kids, change their lives, make a difference, &c. The self-importance is overweening, I admit, but it’s how I approach teaching, and why a novel like "Huck Finn" appeals to me. That said, my practical mind knows that Eileen’s point about modeling the life of an intellectual is a far better approach, and one I also take. For example, when I taught literary journalism, my favorite article to teach—who knew how handy course blogs could be?—was David Quammen’s “Strawberries Under Ice.” As I wrote elsewhere:

'Quammen’s demonstrating the way in which a scholar or writer’s research colors all aspects of his or her life, creating meaningful but ultimately irrelevant juxtapositions of research and lived experience.'

And I go further than that. My idle chit-chat at the beginning of class about how hard I work, the hours I keep, &c. is not intended to muster sympathy, but to give my students an idea of what commitment to an idea entails. All of which is only to say that Eileen is correct to emphasize the life of mind in the classroom, and that the horse I ride in on is often high indeed."

Michael O'Rourke said...

Lots to think about here Eileen, thanks. As well as Bill Readings' The University in Ruins we should pause--refusing the rush into the posthumanities-now to read Derrida's "The University Without Condition" in Without Alibi and J. Hillis Miller's "The Transnational University" in Black Holes on the humanities to-come.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for those cites, as always, Michael O. I just want to mention here, too, that I hope everyone who comes to this post and thread will also check out SEK's original post at The Valve, as it is much more rich and complex than the brief abstract I have included here reflects/

colin said...

This is an excellent post, and you would htink that by now people would be aware that there are very scary creative types in the world. That's not why I posted though, I actually wanted to point out that the idea that it is only the people who are hardwired to be good that can be taught to be good (or moral or whatever) is very Aristotelian. Aristotle posits that in order to be good you have to want to be good, and that in a sense one can only learn to be good by imitating someone who is already good. But you have to want it first. Very unlike Plato who suggests, in the Republic, that he wants to confound the moral skeptic. (Something he probably does not end up accomplishing). It's actually kind of sad that Plato was wrong and Aristotle right. Ah well...

Anonymous said...

Ms Joy, I looked at your website. Frankly it frightens me. I wonder how students respond to it.

J J Cohen said...

A thoughtful post, Eileen.

I think you're right in stating that it doesn't matter all that much that the murderer was an English major -- demons, as you say, are to be found in every discipline, and I'm not certain that choice of major is all that relevant here. Still, it is interesting that Cho Seung-hui's lack of voice has been stressed by family members, roommates, acquaintances: according to today's New York Times, many people in his youth thought he was a deaf-mute. Perhaps he chose English-Creative Writing because it was a place where he was enabled to have a (written) voice. Perhaps. But what is clearly evident from even a glance at his plays is that he did not allow any literary voices to affect him -- that is, you can't read his material and find resonance with some of the works that he (as Scott pointed out) must surely have read during his time studying English. Closed to external voices, written without a sense of a wider world where something called art exists, there is something that is lonely and terrible (in all senses of that word) about his texts.

It seems that, these attempts at creative writing aside, Cho Seung-hui communicated mostly through instant messaging, and even there mostly in monologue.

Eileen Joy said...

Colin--thanks for reminding us about Aristotle, who I often talk about in my literature classes when I am teaching classical drama but also Shakespeare. The idea that one must have a desire to be good before one can even begin to try to be good is something I really believe is true. Which is not to say that someone who mainly hates herself, everyone else, and the world can never be turned toward a more hopeful [and loving] perspective--I leave that question to my friends in psychology!

Anonymous--why is my website scary? I would appreciate more feedback. Only one student ever complained about it and that was because I had a link to a website called "Dogs Who Hate George Bush," which was a mainly humorous site where people sent in pictures of their dogs with quotations from those dogs as to why they didn't like George Bush [I had that up during the last presidential election, then took it down, and the student who complained[?]: his father works in the White House]. I have some photos from certain world conflicts, mainly because much of my scholarship centers on those conflicts and the questions they raise concerning ethics and violence, among other matters. But I can't understand why my website frightens you, unless you tell me why more specifically, and I would be happy to try to speak to that.

mattgabe said...

Small point, but it's either "Virginia Tech" or (the full name) "Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University."

Karl Steel said...

Notably, deplorably, some people do believe that the humanities matter (see the discussion here.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--I don't know if I should thank you for a link to a site that led me to another site that just made me angry [haha], but thanks. I keep forgetting there's that contingent out there who think everything we do "in here" [especially in the liberal arts] is mainly bent on perverting our students' minds and souls. But it prompted me, too, to want to say here that my original post on this subject could be viewed as overly pessimistic about what we do "in here" and I didn't mean it to be so. I actually think many students who drink at the well of the humanities leave refreshed and better able to "be better" in this world; otherwise, I wouldn't have decided to devote my life to teaching literature [and literary thought]. In the unfolding thread on this subject at The Valve, Tony Christini had this to say, with which I agree:

"Reading books (and experiences of all sorts) change some people’s lives, in various ways, at least in that they can have this real affirming or strengthening or committing or otherwise galvanizing effect. Can many people who have devoted their professional lives to literature really not come up with a variety of examples of this well-documented fact or phenomena off the top of their heads?

. . . .

Reading (and writing) is an experience that can help people think about all sorts of things – including the moral, the psychological, the political, even simply the factual, you name it. It can help us make up our minds about so much. The evidence for this is overwhelming. And when we really make up our minds about certain things, really set our minds to something, the effects can be, sort of, limitless. Hiroshimic. Or otherwise. Literature/art has played extraordinarily oppressive and libratory roles. It’s important to have some idea how. And which. And why, what, when, where, and to what degree. Some of this has been studied and determined. And more such important studies, including experiments, are badly needed.

. . . .

But then these concerns may apply only if you agree with Calverton that 'granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.'"

Karl Steel said...

to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape

There's (at least) a third option: What about serving art as a thing of pleasure? Dislodge it from notions (regimes?) of productivity altogether?

I suggest this in part because whenever I'm faced with the deadend of justifying what it is I do, I stop justifying and just say: I'm a medievalist because I like it.

Anonymous said...

You all have seen this blog?

Ouch. There's way too much grand-standing and axe-grionding. But still, ouch.

René Daumal said...

My full response is over at Coffee and Critique, linked below.

A couple of quick responses, though. First of all, Colin, I'm not sure where it's getting anybody to dismiss Plato out of hand, aside from elevating accidental commonalities of method to a principle of original desire for "the good." In order to desire the good, one would already have to know what the good was, in which case it wouldn't be necessary to imitate anyone. I'm paraphrasing The Republic here, of course -- that's the point.

On a more mundane level, most students do come into literature classes "desiring the good," but their notions of the good tend to get vague once you get beyond learning to write well. That's a social problem, related to the primacy of abstractible skill sets in a society dominated by the market. It isn't ontological.

Moreover, I'm not sure how one could teach Aristotle, but defer disagreeing with Aristotelian moral psychology until after a consultation with somebody in the field of psychology. In that case, it would hardly be possible to agree with him, or to present him unreservedly to students, without having a similar consultation first.

I think the pleasurableness of literature should not have to suffer a divorce from its ethical and practical dimensions; its pleasures are ultimately part of an ethic of pleasure, and Chaucer is one of the best examples of this in the whole canon.

Eileen Joy said...

Rene--thanks for your comments, which are fantastic. I have wandered over to "Coffee and Critique," and have read and responded to your post there, "The Myth of Ineffective Teachers" [I have also highlighted your post and comments over at Literature Compass, Blackwell's literary studies blog, to which I contribute semi-regularly], and I encourage everyone else to do the same--it's a fabulous blog [see link below]. Cheers, Eileen