Daddy, What Did You Do in the Culture Wars?


Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich, 1887

by Ed Simon

It would be easy for conservative “culture wars” diatribes to be penned by an artificial intelligence. One imagines that it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a rough outline of how the standard literary-critical jeremiad is composed, and to develop the software necessary to replicate it.

Bemoaning the current state of academic literary study, and blaming it for the supposed collapse of the humanities has been a cottage industry since the so-called “Culture Wars” of the 1980s when fashionable French Theory was supposedly responsible for the degeneration of everything holy. The contours of this genre are fairly standardized. The writer is either a conservative academic comfortably imprisoned within the belly of the beast, wailing about the machinations of pernicious radicalism permeating higher education; or they are a traditionalist minded journalist working at the right-wing press (The Week, The National Review and First Things are prime databases for this kind of rhetoric) sharing with their audience the horrors of tenured radicals who have  discarded Shakespeare in favor of Inuit lesbian slam-poetry, or whatever imaginary subject du jour is enraging the author.

After the perfunctory anecdote is dealt with, there is a listing of works which are supposedly under attack (the Bard of course, who has more readers now than at any point in his reception history, is often a prime example), a fulmination about “political correctness,” and finally some kind of impassioned plea for a nostalgic and imaginary return to traditional humanistic values. A recurring theme is that partisans — of what Harold Bloom called “the schools of resentment” (i.e. any scholar who interprets literature through the lens of race, class, or gender) — secretly hate literature. That any individual would possess the psychology that would lead them to choose the not-particularly lucrative career of professionally studying literature because they secretly harbor hatred towards that subject seems absurd, much less that this is an en masse phenomenon.

Yet as moribund as the humanities have supposedly been (according to positivist scientists, economics majors, and higher education administrators) the “Culture Wars” have surely blazed a bright path across the consciousness of any literature, history, philosophy, theology or cultural studies major. Columnists from William Safire to David Brooks have bemoaned the supposed death of the humanities (while conveniently ignoring how supply-side economics has had a hearty role in that) identifying a “post-modern bogeyman” as being responsible for the murder. In an era of limitless adjuncts, directionless theory, and little respect for the humanities, where does the issue of the “culture wars” stand now? In an era of trigger warnings blogs like Thought Catalog and Buzz Feed mindlessly parrot the language of privilege as appropriated from cultural studies while universities cut classes and limit the number of tenure track appointments. Whither does the culture wars rage when the university is closed for business?

Of course the cause for their being fewer majors in the humanities (and even this can be disputed) is ascribed by the conservative critic to the influence of “Theory,” and not say, the octopus-like reach of corporatization within the university. But it’s an uncomfortable fact for market-fundamentalist periodicals like The National Review to acknowledge that if students are indeed taking less English, history, and philosophy classes it may have less to do with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Edward Said than it does with the obscene cost of higher education, the permeating and often anti-intellectual rhetoric of corporate logic in the academy, and the assault on tenure led by many on the right like David Horowitz. The values of genuine humanistic inquiry are often at odds with the gods of the marketplace, yet the conservative culture warrior finds himself in the unhappy position of trying to serve both God and Mammon. That these sorts of reactionary diatribes with their stock figure of the radical black studies or women’s studies professor trying to destroy the canon are so common doesn’t change the fact that they’re taking part in a debate that is not just old, but passé. And boring.

Allan Bloom in his classic (and delusional) The Closing of the American Mind was enraged by academe at the time. It’s not even that our culture today is different from Bloom’s in 1987, it’s that Bloom wasn’t even accurate then. The “Theory Wars” of the 1980s could indeed be divisive within literature departments, but it’s a period of academic history that belongs to the past, and it doesn’t reflect the reality of graduate students and young faculty who have indeed absorbed the critical lessons of that period, but who have also moved on into different, and sometimes more important and exciting, avenues of scholarship than either merely worrying about who is or is not on an accepted, canonical list of authors and works, or on the contrary supposedly drafting the fall of Western civilization. Most of us are too busy trying to find any kind of employment instead of doing either. And yet The National Review still warns about “The looming cul-de-sacs of postmodernism, diversity and revisionism,” as if diversity was de facto and obviously bad and that the critical faculties of revision are not the central project of humanistic thinking. Also note the borderline anachronistic insertion of the word “postmodernism” which increasingly seems less like a real thing and more as if something from a Harold Bloom fever-dream. Gilbert T. Sewall, the author of the piece from which I quoted, makes one point which I do find interesting, and worth analyzing more. In critiquing a report released by the National Endowment for the Humanities about the state of the liberal arts he writes that its authors “steer away from any concrete definition, standard, or design of excellence, thought, or beauty.”

Here, I think, is a potentially legitimate criticism of the state of the humanities today, though perhaps not in the way that Sewall thinks it is, and perhaps in a way that has more to do with perception than reality. What Sewall’s sentiment gets to is a function of the humanities which I do think (in some form) is central to literary, philosophical, and historical experience, but which we on the left have ceded ownership of to our conservative critics. Too often when in a defensive posture we seem to legitimize that they are the ones who take Literature (with a capital “L”…) seriously, that it’s true that they are the gate-keepers of culture. But is this fair? Might our own “revisionism” be more authentically in line with the Western liberal arts (for who was more revisionist than that old gadfly Socrates)? Note that Sewall has an obsession with “concrete” definitions, with standards and design. The public, and perhaps we on the left (internalizing the rhetoric of the right), take the traditionalist as if anything a lover of literature, but I find their arguments about canonicity to be profoundly cynical and disingenuous. I do not doubt that many of them love the humanities (a consideration that they too often do not give to the rest of us), but I find their language to be that of the anatomist, or the classifier, and not of the poet. Sewall sees the humanities as handmaiden to politics; he writes that its function is “refinements of character, morality, and ethics.” And while the didactic justification for literature has a venerable critical history (and it should be pointed out is pretty much the same argument that those on the social justice left are making about literature’s utility), it’s also not one that particularly privileges literature as itself a different mode of being.

Certainly at his best, Harold Bloom, who is the veritable master of this type of critique, conveys the sublime power of literature in works like The Anxiety of Influence, or even his criminally underrated The American Religion. Bloom sometimes has the sort of transcendent, almost sacred love of the transformative power of poetry and prose that should indeed (in part) be the birthright of those who wish to learn about the humanities. But as Terry Eagleton cattily, but accurately, said about Bloom, he “was once an interesting critic.” Perhaps starting with The Western Canon we’ve had a Bloom who seems primarily interested in showing his readers all the very interesting and important stuff he has read, and then even more crudely listing and ranking them. This type of discourse, popularized by the Blooms, William J. Bennett, Lynn Cheney and so on take it as a given that it is their side which sees literature as important, and the rest of us let them make that argument too often. That the question of “Who is the better writer, Marlowe or Goethe?” doesn’t even really make sense, but that it isn’t even that interesting doesn’t seem to cross the mind of commentators who fume about the supposed abolition of the canon. These questions of aesthetic value are contrary to the critics who obsess over the apparent abandonment of such concerns in the academy, they are questions that aren’t even particularly serious about literature.

Indeed one repeatedly sees that this conservatism isn’t even particularly humanistic. As both a term of derision but also as a reclaimed designation of pride, these critics proudly celebrated the “Dead White Men” who they saw as composing sacrosanct, eternal, platonic canon of “Great Books.” That some authors on this list like St. Augustine were not white, or that others like Emily Dickinson were not men was of no accord (finding a living person on the required reading list of St. John’s College is another issue entirely). Yet this proud touting of the values of the “Dead White Men” is not just profoundly illiberal (in both the classical and current sense of that word), but also completely antithetical to the spirit of humanism. Since the Renaissance (the period which I study) it has been a creedal belief of the humanist to find wisdom where one does. In their snarky and fussy condemnations of my previously mentioned hypothetical (and honestly sort of awesome sounding) lesbian Inuit slam-poetry, the conservative critic has barred himself from finding the wisdom which may well lay within literature which they refuse to read for not being adequately dead, white, and male. This is not an approach which celebrates literature, rather it is a method which puts it on ice, or locks it away, or preserves it in amber, as good as something dead in a jar of formaldehyde. To assume that these are the critics who have an authentic love of literature is to abdicate our own responsibilities to defend precisely what the value of literature is.

In Bloom and his compatriots formulation the canon is an Arnoldian repository of the sweetness and the light, and it is under attack by an aggrieved collection of feminists, black activists, and gay rights groups who would abandon universal literary greatness in favor of winning points for political correctness. As a vision it is attractive to the wider public, not used to the jargon-heavy prose of theoretical writing and the progressive politics of many in academe. For defenders of both cultural studies, but who also believe that literature is a generically unique textual medium, it is a frustrating state of affairs. But again, those of us on the left have ceded too much ground to figures like Harold and Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch (and in all fairness I should point out that Harold Bloom considers himself to be part of the socialist left), taking it as a given that their view of literature somehow does take literature more seriously than the rest of us. And yet what does an analysis of books like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon demonstrate? What we see is the obsessive listing, categorization and borderline crass ranking of books where he falsely claims objectivity for matters of personal taste – a sort of thinking-man’s Buzzfeed listicle. In the conservative canon warriors’ obsession with what books are great, which ones aren’t, and which ones are greater than others, we see a reaffirmation of a type of competitive blood-sport which far from taking literature seriously, simply reduces it to a matter of demonstrating an individual’s superior taste. If the theory-generation proved that canon-based thinking is undeniably biased and reaffirms certain social strictures, than the irony is that nobody demonstrates this more than Harold Bloom. And yet it’s impossible to not have sympathy for wanting to embrace a critic who at least superficially takes literature seriously.

The “school of agrievement” that is composed of critics like the Blooms, Hirsh, Cheney and so on are in a way not wrong that Theory did in part iron out some of what makes literature so profound, and different from other linguistic forms. Cultural materialism, New Historicism, cultural studies and so on provided us with a partial critical service in removing the special status of literary text. In opening up all of written language to the hermeneutics of interpretation they helped us to understand how literature is formulated within given cultural and material contexts. But as an exorcist castes out demons, she must also be careful not to caste out angels. In expanding the canon there has been a necessary democratization of texts, voices once mute now sing with the inclusion of those who were too often ignored. That is not a cause to abandon the special power and significance of literature however, far from it; it is a call to do the exact opposite, to reaffirm the written word’s immense and almost supernatural significance, and to reclaim the concept of literature back from the traditionalists. In reducing all works – be it Chekhov or VCR manuals – to the status of “text,” cultural studies damagd the unique qualities that make literature itself important. There should be no shame in the charge that we need to re-enchant the world a bit. But the solution should not be Bloom’s masculine ranking of books, but rather a consideration of precisely what is important about literature itself. We need a new and engaged mode of criticism that is true to the vision of Kafka who claimed that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” or Dickinson who said “If I physically feel as if the top of my head was taken off, I know that is poetry.” But the canon-obsessives, in forcing something as wild, untamable, profound, and powerful as literature into the straight-jacket of anal retentive lists and evaluations of “greatness” also did a profound disservice to literature. The conservative defense of the canon is so often a celebration of mere wallpaper, a means of demonstrating one’s education, pedigree, or wealth. If the humanities now take on an existential, if not spiritual import than we must reject this suburban ranking of texts. The ranking of “the best which has been thought and said” is an affectation, it’s literary Fantasy Football. In short we need to stop asking which literature is great, and reinvestigate why literature is great.

About the Author:


Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.